At home in the wilderness

The rolling hills of Laguna Canyon were Hallie Jones' backyard.

She grew up off Castle Rock Road and rode horses through the sage-covered trails.

She remembers the fight in the early '90s to preserve the open space and sported a Save the Canyon sticker on her lunch box.

Now the Laguna Beach native is the executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

The nonprofit works to maintain parts of the 20,000-acre South Coast Wilderness. It was set up in 1990 after voters approved a $20 million bond to purchase Laguna Canyon to prevent development there and keep it open space.

"I always knew that I would do something that would give back to my community and something that would protect the world," Jones said, "but never would have thought that I would end up here."

Jones has headed the nonprofit since October after spending 13 years with the Santa Monica-based ocean preservation nonprofit Heal the Bay.

She said she has been busy her first few months as director but feels "extremely lucky."

"This job is just a dream come true for me, because it really combines my passion and the thing that I love to do more than anything with a career," she said, taking in a view of the canyon from the deck of the Nix Nature Center.

Jones, who lived in Laguna Canyon until she was 17, credits her upbringing near hills and beach for her love of the environment.

Tasked with the job of preserving the land she knew so well as a kid, Jones "hit the ground running" in her first few months at the helm.

Barbara Norton, the OC Parks supervising ranger for the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, which is part of the South Coast Wilderness area, was on the panel that hired Jones.

She said Jones will "work great with the stakeholders" and, in addition to her "superb experience," is "bright, articulate and well-rounded."

Jones is working with Norton and OC Parks on her first big project, which is to restore the Emerald Canyon Trail. Two parts of the trail were washed out in 2010 by a rainstorm.

In addition to OC Parks, Jones is collaborating with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy to build two bridges that will span the two sections of the damaged trail. One bridge will be nearly 60 feet long.

The hope is to have the project completed in April or May.

Norton said the 60-foot span may need to be flown in by helicopter and, other than the major construction, a majority of the work will be done by volunteers.

Jones also wants to focus on invasive species and is starting a campaign to remove Arundo, or giant reed, from Aliso Creek.

Arundo grows in dense thickets uninhabitable by local wildlife. Pulling the non-native plant from the creek would open the space for recreation, she said.

Add to this long list of projects another: Jones wants to increase community involvement and give people a "sense of ownership of the land."

"My personal goal is to work with the community to get people very invested in this incredible resource that we have," she said. "The open space belongs to all of us."

Jones has enjoyed learning the extensive trail network throughout Laguna Canyon, taking every opportunity to be outside.

Her Laguna Canyon upbringing is coming full circle. Much of her free time on the trails is spent with her 8-year-old daughter, Emmie, and 5-year-old son, Kai.

They too are making Laguna Canyon their backyard.

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