On a modest stretch of Linda Vista Avenue near the La Cañada Flintridge-Pasadena border lies a nondescript piece of land whose dry shrubs and trees hide a rich biodiversity of life.
An old wire fence offers one entrance into Cottonwood Canyon, an 11-acre parcel that connects the Arroyo Seco, just south of Devil's Gate Dam, to the San Rafael Mountains.
Held jointly for more than a century by two families now looking to sell, the land doesn't appear to be anything extraordinary. But biologists and land preservationists say the parcel contains a natural year-round spring that attracts wildlife and helps feed multiple floral habitats.
Moreover, it is one of just a few small parcels that connect with larger preserved areas where various animal species live and move about. Left undeveloped, it could continue to serve as an important wildlife corridor connecting the San Rafael, San Gabriel and Verdugo mountains.
For that reason, the land is being keenly eyed by the Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy, an Altadena group that has worked since 2000 to acquire and preserve open space in and around the San Gabriel and Crescenta valleys.
"It's the only connection to the Arroyo Seco that we found," said John Howell, chief executive and general counsel for the conservancy. "It's a wildlife corridor with water on it."
The conservancy is working to purchase the territory for $1.3 million, largely through federal grants, Howell said.
Additionally, the group has set a $300,000 community fundraising goal to create a Friends of Cottonwood volunteer advisory group to foster the territory, plan community and school programs, and do restoration.
La Cañada Flintridge resident Gordon Crawford has pledged to match every dollar raised up to $50,000, Howell said.
In 2012, the conservancy successfully acquired and restored La Crescenta's 7.75-acre Rosemont Preserve as well 13 acres of Millard Canyon in Altadena.
Now Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy members are searching out available parcels in Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta and Glendale where open space could be preserved and wildlife corridors expanded, potentially all the way to the Los Angeles River.
And they're looking for conservation-minded civic leaders and residents to join them.
Last month, conservancy board members Katie Poole and Tim Martinez spoke before the La Cañada Flintridge City Council, seeking the city's support for the land acquisition project.
"Our purpose for wanting to preserve this canyon is mainly to protect it from development," Poole told the council. "Help us figure out how La Cañada can draft such a resolution to support this open space."
Council members agreed to consider placing a supportive resolution on a future agenda.
Support from city councils and citizens groups helps the conservancy obtain grant money to purchase land, sometimes at full market value, which is the case for the Cottonwood Canyon parcel. Given the biological richness of the land, Howell says, it would be a huge loss to lose it to development.
Mickey Long, a biologist who worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation for 35 years and now volunteers with the conservancy, says the canyon is a rare place where chaparral and riparian life coexist alongside coastal sage scrub and southern oak woodland. That plant diversity attracts myriad wildlife that dwell and move through the canyons.
"To get all this in one 11-acre property is a good thing," Long said.
Just beyond the Linda Vista Avenue fence, under the tree canopy, the temperature drops at least 10 degrees, creating a "thermal refuge" for wild animals. The water in the year-round spring was created when landowners drilled in the 1880s to create the now-defunct Cottonwood Canyon water company.
"We have over 40 species of birds known in the property so far without doing a survey, just from our visits," says Long, a lifelong birder who carries binoculars around his neck.
For Poole, a La Cañada Flintridge resident and longtime hiker, maintaining open space should be a priority for area residents: "If you want people to appreciate nature, you have to have something to show them."