Commentary: Banning Ranch habitat, species will be saved

The community cheered last week at news that excessive and destructive mowing on Banning Ranch did not occur.

According to an oil field employee with whom I spoke, the mowing is now limited to a 100-foot buffer around the perimeter of Banning Ranch. This 100-foot buffer is consistent with the Orange County Fire Authority vegetation management code and will ensure adequate safety for the adjacent residences, but will also allow re-establishment of coastal sage scrub habitat on much of the mesa.

With increased coastal sage scrub habitat, California Gnatcatchers, Cactus Wrens and other special status species are expected to repopulate these areas and grow in number over the years, strengthening the need to preserve Banning Ranch as open space.

For the past several years, excessive, over-the-top and destructive mowing had been occurring on the Banning Ranch mesa, involving most of the very rare native grasslands and resulting in widespread clearing of scrub habitat. This mowing was occurring in the "footprint" of the proposed development.

Not satisfied with the explanations from the developer that this mowing was part of routine fire safety, the local community probed further into the matter by reviewing pertinent guidelines, regulations and permitting history. As it turned out, the mowing was occurring in federally declared critical habitat for the endangered San Diego fairy shrimp and the threatened California Gnatcatcher.

With further investigation, it was clear that the owners' permit to conduct an oil operation, granted by the Coastal Commission in 1973, did not include permission to conduct widespread mowing and vegetation clearance beyond that necessary for the operation of the oil field and for fire safety.

A closer look at oil field regulations showed the mowing was counter to state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources regulations, which specify that areas around abandoned wells, rather than being cleared, should be allowed to return to a natural state (the vast majority of the oil wells on Banning Ranch are abandoned). This finding raised concerns that the real reason behind the excessive mowing was to keep federally listed and other special status species out of the area proposed for development.

With the cessation of the excessive and destructive mowing on the mesa, the restoration of Banning Ranch has begun de facto. The community applauds this first step by the oil operator in allowing this restoration to occur.

The grass-roots effort to save Banning Ranch and preserve it entirely as open space grows daily in strength and momentum. However, the road will be a long one and will require the cooperation of the public, the land owner and the developer, as well as local and state elected officials.

Hurdles lie ahead, but there is every indication that they can be cleared in the coming years. A review of correspondence between the Coastal Commission and the developer suggests the proposed development is not consistent with the Coastal Act. The developer's application has been deemed incomplete twice.

Please contact the Banning Ranch Conservancy to learn more about what you can do to help save Banning Ranch as open space.

DOROTHY KRAUS is chairwoman of Concerned Citizens of Newport Beach.

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