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Opinion

Op-Ed: Environmentalists made a troubling deal with Tejon Ranch

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Grasslands on Tejon Ranch.
(Los Angeles Times)

As I turned a corner, the animal was suddenly right there in all its furious glory, hissing a warning and baring its teeth. It was the first badger I’d ever seen, and I beat a hasty retreat. But after that close encounter at Tejon Ranch 30 years ago, I watched from a distance, fascinated by this fearless little beast.

That’s the kind of experience you often have at Tejon, one of Southern California’s most spectacular landscapes. Its vast boundaries extend from the San Joaquin Valley shrub lands to Sierra foothills to the Mojave Desert — an ecologically extraordinary mix of Joshua trees, pines and oaks that yield to desert grasslands and stunning wildflower fields. To step onto Tejon (“badger” in Spanish) is to travel back to a time when much of the state was untrammeled wilderness.

This 270,000-acre property, about an hour and half north of Los Angeles, is privately owned, but taxpayers have spent millions to safeguard wild places at Tejon, and the land is supposed to be protected by a conservation agreement.

Yet this national treasure is not nearly protected enough. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently approved the 5,800-acre Centennial development on the ranch — 19,000 homes and 8.4 million square feet of commercial space that would destroy crucial wildlife habitat. A second similar development, called Grapevine, in the Kern County portion of the ranch, is the subject of a recent lawsuit.

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The conservation agreement allows harmful grazing, oil drilling and mining on portions of the preserved land. And now, the already limited public access to this breathtaking place, where condors soar above fields of wildflowers, has been further curbed by the ranch owners.

Tejon is a living laboratory for biological diversity.

The current problems at Tejon are rooted in negotiations a decade ago between the ranch owners, who were planning to develop the property, and environmental groups, who were likely to oppose those plans.

Tejon offered a deal: It would set aside 90% of the ranch for conservation and fund a conservancy, run by the company and environmental groups, to oversee that land. In return, the organizations would refrain from publicly opposing the developments.

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To support the conservancy concept, the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board paid $15.8 million to Tejon for “conservation easements” — agreements restricting damaging activities — on 62,000 acres of land within the conservancy.

Several environmental groups agreed to the deal: Audubon California, the Endangered Habitats League, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Planning and Conservation League and the Sierra Club. Others, including the Center for Biological Diversity, where I am a biologist, refused. Ten years later, the center has all the more reason to think it made a wise choice.

In our estimation, half the land the ranch owners offered for conservation wasn’t buildable anyway, and environmental pressures to protect rare and endangered species would have required the other half to be preserved. In other words, much of the same land could have been protected without environmental groups signing away their freedom to protest environmentally problematic developments.

There were other problems with the agreement as well. The preserved land continues to be owned by Tejon Ranch rather than a conservancy or a public entity, and the company can dictate who comes on the land — and who can’t.

Earlier this year, the company banned botanist Nick Jensen and his organization, the California Native Plant Society, from the ranch, along with other groups associated with the society. As a company vice president said to the Los Angeles Times, the group was banned “because of its public opposition to the Centennial development” — apparently a reference to a letter Jensen cosigned about the project’s environmental impacts. Jensen was even banned from the areas covered by the state’s conservation easement, which is supported with public dollars.

That’s a serious blow. Tejon is a living laboratory for biological diversity, including a new buckwheat species discovered on the ranch. All scientists with a legitimate reason to be on the land should have access.

Even as the Tejon Ranch Company punishes its critics, there are growing financial concerns about the flawed conservation agreement.

The nonprofit conservancy currently runs on loans from the company. The money to repay those loans and fund future operations is supposed to come mostly from fees from three Tejon development projects but none have yet broken ground. Despite the green light from the L.A. County supervisors, Centennial needs additional approvals and may face environmental lawsuits.

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Unlike the groups that entered the agreement, my organization is able to oppose problematic aspects of the developments in court. Earlier this month, in response to a lawsuit filed the center, a judge found the environmental review for Tejon’s Grapevine inadequate. The judge ordered Kern County to rescind approvals for the development.

What’s the solution? For decades, my organization’s vision for a majority of the ranch’s iconic wilderness has been a publicly accessible park. Indeed, the conservation agreement even specifies “a commitment to working together with the Conservancy to establish a California state park,” but that hasn’t materialized.

State and local officials should be stepping up to ensure the preservation of this land, as well as reasonable and fair public access to it. They shouldn’t be allowing sprawling development in areas that are of tremendous environmental value.

Future generations deserve the opportunity to be enchanted by Tejon Ranch. They should hear the wind whistling through pine needles, enjoy the rich smell of leaves under a massive mother oak’s lush canopy, and meet a cantankerous badger in the grasslands.

Ileene Anderson is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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