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Commentary: Coast to Cleveland corridor brings connectivity to wildlife

A wildlife corridor provides a link for wildlife to move between habitat areas in a landscape fragmented by human developments.

The Coast to Cleveland Wildlife Corridor, located in Irvine, will link 22,000 acres of habitat in and around the cities of Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Hills to more than 150,000 acres of similar habitat in the Cleveland National Forest in the Santa Ana Mountains. The need for such a corridor was recognized in the early 1990s and the closure of El Toro Marine Base offered the opportunity to reconnect coast and mountains wildlife populations.

Laguna Greenbelt, Inc, a local nonprofit working since 1968 to preserve open space, envisions this 6-mile corridor as a series of habitat spaces that re-establishes a continuous route for animals to move between the coast and mountains.

Historically, animals have moved throughout the region as they look for food, shelter, suitable mates, and safe places to raise their young. Decades of development restricted their freedom of movement and now there is only a remaining strip of land adjacent to the Orange County Great Park with which to restore this critical connection.

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Affected animals include our resident bobcats, California Gnatcatchers, Orange-Throated Whiptail lizards, long-tailed weasels, mule deer and raccoons, to name a few.

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Southern Reach

The confluence of San Diego and Needlegrass Creeks, just north of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, is a busy hub animals use to move between the 22,000 acres of open space and other habitats nearby. These creeks offer water, plant cover and food sources along their banks. Fencing separates the area from the streets and human intrusion — something necessary for wildlife to feel at home.

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Animals can move along wide, fenced portions of San Diego and Serrano Creeks, negotiating bridge undercrossings and culverts constructed by The Irvine Company until they encounter their first major challenge — crossing under the Interstate 5 at Bake Parkway — a long, dark and crooked tunnel that experiences frequent flooding.

Wildlife is reluctant or unable to use this crossing. More creative solutions are needed for this area to be a viable crossing.

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Central Reach

Continuing north along the corridor, the stretch to be built adjacent to the future Great Park Neighborhoods, by Five Point Communities, offers a particularly bright spot.

As animals emerge from underneath the I-5 freeway, they will move into a continuous habitat corridor along the eastern edge of the Great Park. The wildlife corridor will function as it should through this reach thanks to the commitment of the developer and the city of Irvine.

Over the past several years, Five Point Communities officials worked with Laguna Greenbelt, Inc, biologists, corridor experts, and the city of Irvine to create a corridor plan, in addition to investing $13 million into its implementation and growing landscape plants on site. The developer hopes to break ground on this section of the corridor in 2018, and finish it within 18 months.

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Northern Reach

From the northern edge of Five Points Community, the corridor passes under Irvine Boulevard on the former Magazine Road and continues due north, over two sensitive parcels of land.

The first parcel is owned by the county, which is planning a large apartment development there, and through which runs a segment of corridor built by the county.

The second, a 900-acre parcel controlled by the FBI, is critical habitat for the California Gnatcatcher, a federally threatened species. From this mostly natural parcel, animals will pass through culverts underneath the 241 Tollroad and move into the Limestone-Whiting Wilderness Park, then onto the Santa Ana Mountains — one of the largest wildlands in our region.

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Next Steps

While much has been accomplished so far in establishing it, there are still issues to address to ensure the investments of the community yield a functioning, thriving wildlife corridor.

Some sections will benefit from smoother transitions, making crossings more appealing and usable. Additionally, the multi-story, 970-unit residential development project planned on the County’s 44-acre parcel adjacent to the Great Park may impact wildlife moving through the area.

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Animals moving along the corridor fare best when protected from human activity, including the presence of domestic pets, nighttime lights and sound. At an environmental impact report-scoping meeting held on Oct. 23, officials reported that no additional changes are currently being planned to shield the corridor from these activities should the West Alton project be built.

The EIR covering 16 items (excepting Mineral Rights) is expected to be released in 2016.

Challenges aside, when completed, this corridor will be a testament to collaboration among a coalition of conservation organizations, developers, landowners, and resources agencies working to stitch together slivers of land, for the good of our wild and human communities. The result will be one of the most uniquely urban and extensive corridors of its kind, offering wildlife an unobstructed path in the search for essential resources needed to thrive alongside people in our ever-changing modern landscape.

GABRIELA WORREL is an outreach coordinator at Laguna Greenbelt, Inc.


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