Progress made on crucial wildlife corridor connecting O.C. coast with Cleveland National Forest

An area of land in Irvine is being restored to its natural state.
An area of land near the Orange County Great Park in Irvine is being restored to its natural state to allow for animals to traverse the Orange County coastal terrains and Santa Ana mountain ranges.
(Courtesy of FivePoint Holdings)

During the Laguna Beach fire of 1993, many animals had difficulty retreating from the massive blaze due to a lack of open space.

The fire caused devastating damage, burning 16,000 acres and hundreds of homes. About one in five of the endangered gnatcatchers that lived in Orange County were killed.

In the wake of the fire, animals from the surrounding habitat could not travel to coastal areas to replenish the populations.

A wildlife corridor became necessary for animals to access the areas that had been ravaged by the fire.

Now, nearly three decades later, much of that corridor is being funded, designed and constructed by Great Park developer FivePoint Holdings. The company is working alongside the environmental group Laguna Greenbelt, which fought for the corridor since the 1990s.

FivePoint has been working on restoring 2.5 miles of the 6-mile corridor since it broke ground in early 2018. When the project is finished, it will connect the Cleveland National Forest with Orange County wild coastal terrains. The grounds were formerly used for agriculture and as the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro golf course.

“Significant progress has been made toward connecting two of the largest open spaces in Orange County, which are vital to the well-being of wildlife that live and move throughout the area,” said FivePoint Chief Operating Officer Lynn Jochim.

“We are grateful for our partnership with Laguna Greenbelt and the industry experts we have worked closely with to complete the connection between 20,000 acres of coastal chaparral and the Santa Ana Mountains. We remain dedicated to continued stewardship of the land and collaboration with our partners to finish this critical environmental link for Irvine, the region and generations to come.”

A cactus farm in the Upper Segment 2 of a wildlife corridor in Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The corridor will encourage biological diversity in the animals that dwell in the more than 20,000 acres of coastal chaparral surrounding Laguna Beach, officials say.

Species such as the gray fox, bobcat, coyote and various native birds will be able to travel between Orange County coastal habitat and the Santa Ana Mountains.

“It’s crucial, particularly to the coastal wilderness area around Laguna Beach — if we’re cutting that off and essentially making an island from the rest of the region ... the animals that live in the wild along the coast are really going to suffer because they need genetic diversity,” said Gabriela Worrel, outreach coordinator with Laguna Greenbelt.

Diversity is crucial in an animal population because it safeguards against singular catastrophic events. If animals are mating with their family members and reintroducing the same traits into the collective genome, a single disease could wash through the population and wreak havoc.

Worrel said genetic testing has revealed that some of the animals living in the wilderness parks along the coast are already showing signs of genetic degradation.

More open space means more potential mates to encourage biodiversity.

“Additionally, consider climate change and what’s happening with wildfires and how that’s going to increase,” Worrel said. “The best thing for nature is to have these escape routes that animals can use to go to another area when there’s a fire. And then it allows them to come back into the area as well when that disaster is over. So, those things are all crucial for maintaining our habitat on the coast.”

A passageway opening below Irvine Boulevard in the Upper Segment 2, south of Lynx, of a wildlife corridor in Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Greenbelt has contributed to a number of environmental triumphs in the county, including establishing the 22,000-acre greenbelt around Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove State Park and the 38,000-acre Nature Reserve of Orange County.

The city, which owns the land, is monitoring the progress and has reviewed the planning and construction documents for the project.

In the last year and a half, FivePoint planted 98% of the vegetation, which includes more than 15,000 shrubs and plants, 24,000 cactuses and 4,500 trees. All of the irrigation lines have been installed. The supplemental watering will be necessary in the first few years as the infant vegetation grows.

FivePoint has also sprayed 3.5 million square feet of hydro seed, which staves off erosion and encourages grass growth.

About 60% of the fencing has been installed to keep people out of the area.

The Lower Segment 2, south of Astor, of a wildlife corridor in Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The project has not been immune from COVID-related setbacks.

A FivePoint spokesman said the pandemic slowed the pace of the project due to a shortage of resources. It was particularly difficult to get shipments of fencing at certain times over the last year. Crew availability was also another obstacle since the beginning of the pandemic.

Irvine spokeswoman Kristina Perrigoue said next steps for the project are “dependent on multiple variables and are still being evaluated.”

Perrigoue said there is no estimate for the completion of the corridor because plans have not yet been approved for surrounding areas in the southern end.

“This thing is moving at the pace that everybody expected in the sense that there are a number of players involved including wildlife agencies and others that need to check off on things as it progresses,” the FivePoint spokesman said.

He said that more work needs to be done on a couple of “pinch points” where the corridor intersects with Barranca and Alton parkways. The area gets more complex as it runs under the intersection.

The fencing also needs to be completed.

The Upper Segment 2, south of Lynx, of a wildlife corridor in Irvine.
The Upper Segment 2, south of Lynx, of a wildlife corridor expands a quarter of a mile, widthwise, in Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

While the original estimate for the corridor’s completion was mid-2019, Perrigoue said the development of the corridor is not moving slower than expected.

The FivePoint spokesman said the company is not estimating a deadline for the corridor’s completion.

“These are complex projects that involve engineering, science and a lot of input from different people and the project is moving forward,” the FivePoint spokesman said. “... We’re, from our standpoint, very pleased with the progress that’s been made and where we are now, and I think we can certainly see the light at the end of the tunnel on this.”

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