Seven years after they donated half a million dollars in "seed money," James and Rosemary Nix are seeing the culmination of a long-planned nature center for visitors to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
The $3.4 million center, named for the Laguna Woods couple, will be open and staffed seven days a week, and will serve as park ranger headquarters for the wilderness area.
It will also be a launching pad for nature lovers who want to explore the centerpiece of the 20,000-acre coastal preserve — which stretches from Crystal Cove State Park north of Laguna Beach to Aliso Creek in South Laguna.
"We're extremely excited," said James Nix, 88. "We've been looking forward to this for a long time."
The Nix Nature Center will be dedicated Saturday in a day-long "preview" event from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., including exhibits, tours and hiking, and then will close for several months for additional improvements, said Mary Fegraus, of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.
The Center sits off the newly opened two-lane Laguna Canyon Road, which itself was dedicated just two weeks ago in a formal ceremony.
The center — with the theme "Full Circle" — will educate visitors about the history, ecology and uses of the gentle, sycamore-studded hills that make up the wilderness park.
Telling the story of how the 6,500-acre park came into being is a major component of the center, which will feature specially commissioned murals, a sculpture and a continuous-loop exhibition of photographs depicting the fight to save the canyon.
It's not just a story of land. It's a story about people.
It was 15 years ago this month that thousands marched to save the canyon from an intensive Irvine Co. development project that had been approved four years earlier by the Board of Supervisors.
On Nov. 11, 1989, an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 marchers with placards created a half-mile-long human chain to halt the plans for 3,200 homes, a golf course and commercial areas on the 2,150-acre Laguna Laurel tract, on the eastern edge of Laguna Beach.
At the time, the mass protest was seen as an act of desperation by a community that was fighting apparently unbeatable odds.
Over the next decade and a half, a tug of war was waged among preservationists, municipalities and property owners — primarily the Irvine Co.— over the future of the land.
As time wore on, efforts to acquire the land outright were increasingly urgent, but money was scarce.
Laguna Beach voters approved a $20 million tax bond in 1991 to help foot the bill, and donations and state park bonds were also thrown into the pot. But it was never enough to purchase the highly desirable parcel, despite an early purchase agreement between the city of Laguna Beach and the Irvine Co.
Then, in late 2001, the Irvine Co. agreed to donate 11,000 acres in the San Joaquin Hills — including the last remaining Laguna Laurel parcel — for park land.
At the time, Michael Pinto, founder and president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, said the donation brought tears of joy to the canyon's proponents.
When the Nixes made their donation in 1999, the foundation was still in the process of acquiring key parcels, but the couple wanted their money to go to a nature center.
"They were the catalysts [for the center]," Pinto said. "They challenged us, but it was time to go to the next step."
James Nix, a retired telephone company executive, says he and Rosemary, 87, had always enjoyed visiting the nation's parks with their children on vacation.
When James retired 25 years ago, the couple moved from Marina del Rey to Laguna Woods (then Leisure World), and were very aware of the wilderness area and sheep-grazing lands near their home.
"We were afraid one day they would develop it, and when we learned it had been designated as park land, we wanted to be involved in some way," James said.
"They [Laguna Canyon Foundation] said they needed a nature center, and the whole thing rang a bell with us. We wanted to do it. When we signed a pledge for $500,000 we had no idea what to expect."
The Nixes have observed every facet of the project, from design to construction.
The "Full Circle" theme of the center relates to the grass-roots efforts of community members in Laguna Beach and nearby cities to stop the proposed development and bring the land back to its natural, pristine state, Fegraus said.
"The Tell" — a giant mural of some 100,000 photographs of people enjoying the mountain area — was part of the campaign to save the canyon.
At more than 600 feet long, The Tell appeared in May 1989 at a site where the 73 toll road now meets the canyon road, and served as a focal point of the protests before it was removed in January of 1990.
"It was the voice of the people," Fegraus said.
The human story will be told in a continuous-loop video that will be played for visitors at the center.
The nature center is at the nexus of the trail system that crisscrosses the wilderness park — the second-largest coastal park in Southern California after the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The center has been designed with "sustainable" features, including solar power, a radiant-heat floor, septic system instead of a sewer line and water collection for use on the site.
"The building sits lightly," Pinto said. "It is self-sufficient. We want to leave the planet as well or better than when we arrived."
With 50 parking spaces easily accessed off the reconfigured canyon road near the 405 Freeway and trails with less than a 5% grade for wheelchair accessibility, park advocates feel it will well-serve the public that paid for the land.
"We are bringing people into the wilderness," Fegraus said.
On the dedication day, the center will not be accessible from Laguna Canyon Road.
Visitors must park at one of several park-and-ride shuttle stops, including the Laguna College of Art & Design at 2222 Laguna Canyon Rd. Other shuttle stops are in Irvine and Laguna Woods.
TIMELINE OF LAGUNA COAST WILDERNESS PARK