Conservationists edge closer to Banning Ranch acquisition with $8-million grant from state

The Trust for Public Land has secured an exclusive agreement to buy the 384-acre area.
The Trust for Public Land has secured an exclusive agreement to buy Banning Ranch and transform the largest privately owned swath of coastal bluffs left in Southern California into a nature reserve with access for millions.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The dream of turning a 384-acre oil field at the mouth of the Santa Ana River into a public park and nature preserve grows closer to a reality by another $8 million, thanks to a grant from the state’s fish and wildlife department announced earlier this month.

The $8-million grant for the purchase of Banning Ranch, given to the Trust for Public Land, is one of 28 projects — and one of three acquisition projects — selected to receive a grant this year. State officials say the total amount given across all projects was $39 million.

The grant comes from the Proposition 1 Watershed Restoration Grant program, which finances projects that establish more reliable water supplies; restore species and habitats; and create more resilient, sustainably managed water systems.

“We are thrilled to support the acquisition of Banning Ranch, a unique opportunity years in the making,” said Matt Wells, the chief of the Watershed Restoration Grants Branch for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Preserving 400 acres of true biodiversity in an urban setting, with significant acreage of tidal wetlands and coastal sage scrub, is a massive leap forward in ensuring not only critical habitat for fish and wildlife, but also much needed open space access for California’s residents and visitors,” Wells said.

The Trust for Public Land announced in May that it secured an exclusive agreement with the owners of Banning Ranch to purchase the land, a first in more than 50 years, after the nonprofit organization received a $50-million donation from Newport Beach philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall in 2019.

But, the fight to protect and preserve Banning Ranch from development dates back decades, according to the Banning Ranch Conservancy in Newport Beach.

In 2006, Newport Beach voters approved a ballot initiative amendment to the city’s general plan to preserve Banning Ranch, consolidate the oil operations that long-operated in the area and restore the wetlands.

Several sensitive species can be found there, including peregrine falcons, California gnatcatchers and the San Diego fairy shrimp.

As part of the agreement, conservationists will need to raise $100 million by next April. Upon purchase, the land would be conveyed to a public agency to develop and maintain it as a public park.

A spokeswoman for the Trust for Public Land said the organization has raised about $68 million toward the $100 million purchase price to date, with the majority of it coming from the Randalls’ donation.

“We see this grant as a giant vote of confidence for the future of Banning Ranch and a recognition of its benefits to the regional community,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director at the Trust For Public Land in a statement.

“This grant adds $8 million toward our goal, and we are deeply grateful to the department of fish and wildlife staff and director Chuck Bonham,” said Rodriguez. “That’s a big step, but we still have a long ways to go to climb this mountain and a limited time to reach the top.”

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4:53 p.m. June 22, 2021: This story has been updated to add a response from a spokesperson from the Trust for Public Land, who said the organization has raised about $68 million toward the property’s $100 million purchase price.