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Our Laguna: Preserving wilderness is ongoing battle

Our Laguna: Preserving wilderness is ongoing battle
Derek Ostensen, left, and Max Borella discuss Laguna Coast Wilderness land.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is Laguna’s frontyard. That’s what people see when they head into town on Laguna Canyon Road.

Locals can take pride in the preservation of the 7,000 acres of wilderness they helped preserve, one of the gems of the South Coast Wilderness area, which includes Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, Crystal Cove State Park and the City of Irvine Open Space Preserve, totaling about 20,000 acres,


“My heart beats an extra beat every time I drive through Laguna Canyon — particularly after driving through urban sprawl to get here,” said Mary Fegraus, former and first executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

The acquisition was amazing. The effort to maintain it is ongoing. We shouldn’t take it for granted.


Jump-started by the thousands who took The Walk in 1989 down Laguna Canyon Road to protest development in the canyon, followed by the unprecedented passage of the $20 million bond by Laguna Taxpayers to buy open space, the park became a reality in 1993.

The Laguna Canyon Foundation, founded in 1990 by Michael Pinto, was instrumental.

Pinto served as president of the board of directors until he retired in 2010, succeeded briefly by Don Vivrette and then Derek Ostensen, in January 2011.

Laguna Greenbelt President Elisabeth Brown and Laguna Canyon Conservancy President Carolyn Wood were on the original board and still serve


The current board includes Andrew Castellano, Peter Kote, Lance Vallery, Michelle Kremer, Mark Denny, former City Council members Jane Egly and Verna Rollinger, Johanna Felder, Scott Ferguson, Martin Rhodes and Ranger Barbara Norton.

More than 200 foundation volunteers help Orange County Parks staff steward the land and conduct more than 30 programs and hikes for the public every month. They are trained and eager to guide folks on exploratory walks and hikes where they can learn about the flora, fauna, geology and history of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.

Volunteers greet visitors at park entrances, run a native plant nursery, assist in habitat restoration and staff the Nix Nature Center, the gift of James and Rosemary Nix in Little Sycamore Canyon and the hub of park activities.

It is park volunteers who “Keep it Wild” and keep it open 365 days a year.


“When we began, the park was only open on weekends for tours of Laurel Canyon — we didn’t even own Little Sycamore Canyon then,” Fegraus said. “Now 100,000 people visit the park every year.”

Several names were suggested for the park, including Tres Lagunas, but the late Lida Lenney was adamant that Laguna be included and she prevailed.

The foundation has continued to help fund acquisitions, most recently spearheading the purchase of 56 acres in Rim Rock Canyon, known as the McGehee property, bought with Proposition 12 funds.

The fund is now depleted, but the foundation’s commitment to purchasing more open space parcels adjacent to the parks is still going strong, according to Max Borella, foundation executive director since 2010.

Other 2012 highlights include the purchase of the 3-acre McGraw property in the canyon and restoration of the Big Bend habitat.

“I have always considered the majestic cliffs of Big Bend to be the village entrance,” Borella said. “Nothing welcomes locals home quite like the sight of that soaring ridgeline. We are proud to continue our work by transforming the field below to native habitat.”

The foundation partnered with the city, the Conservation Fund and the Trust for Public Land to purchase the parcel.

Money also was also raised in 2012 to enable the foundation to remove invasive species from Aliso Creek.

Arundo donax is Ostensen’s No. 1 enemy, according to a published statement. It is an unwelcome and highly invasive plant that is also high on Councilwoman Toni Iseman’s hit list.

“Prior to the introduction of arundo, Aliso Creek was an extraordinary riparian ecosystem filled

with rare birds, threatened pond turtles and a remarkably diverse group of plants,” Ostensen said.

“Unfortunately, arundo, a non-native invader from the Mediterranean, has taken over large portions of the ecosystem and out-competed as much as 75% of the native species in some areas.”

But the tide is turning, according to Ostensen, aided by a $1.1 million grant from the Orange County Transportation Authority and an additional $2 million that the foundation helped coordinate.

“Over the next five years, a transformation of Aliso Creek will occur,” Ostensen said. “The arundo and other invasive plants will be comprehensively removed. In their place, native willow, wild rose, blackberry and many other riparian species will be planted, helping to support the myriad wildlife that depend on a healthy creek and improving water quality and open space viewsheds for the public.”

The foundation’s programs, which include educational trips for children to the park, don’t come cheap. Personal donations and corporate grants will help ensure the continuation of the foundation activities.

Programs this September include fitness hikes, ranging from 2 to 6.5 miles; studying the plants at Barbara’s Lake, named for the late Barbara Stuart in honor of her generosity to the foundation; a Family Fun Day with volunteer naturalist Kimberly Leeds; a native plant and wildlife hike led by volunteer Nadine Nordstom; a bird walk, also led by volunteers; and an introduction to mountain bike riding.

A $2 donation is requested for each activity. Parking is $3. Online reservations are required. Activities are published in the Coastline Contact at or Click on Events and Programs.

For more information about volunteering or to be added to the monthly event e-mail list, visit the foundation website or call (949) 923-2235.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call 1 (714) 966-4608 or with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.