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Promised lands

Times Staff Writer

THE value of open space in an urban setting is infinite. Beneath an open sky, surrounded by an uncluttered horizon, land — in all its weedy and rutted splendor — has a restorative effect. The pleasures are often subtle — chips of shale dotted with fossils crunching under foot — and fleeting — an owl sweeping soundlessly from bluff to branch. But the wildness of these spaces provides a missing and vital perspective to our daily lives.

Preserving open land — and in some cases, restoring it — can be as difficult as turning back time. Yet in bits and pieces, Southern Californians are restaking old claims.

Thanks to the single-minded dedication of conservation groups, land trusts, conservancies, private companies and government organizations, forgotten canyons are becoming nature preserves, oil lands are returning to wetlands, and parklands are expanding into larger wildlife sanctuaries.

As communities push back with evermore vigor, the wild side of the region is becoming as vital as the subdivisions that edge up against it. Whales, blue herons, falcons and gnatcatchers live in our midst, and if we dare to look ahead, we might find an urban landscape in search of harmony with nature.

Here are five sites where the future is circling back to the past.

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Portuguese Bend Nature Preserve 1,400 acres Coastal sage Open, with ongoing restoration

ON the southwestern flank of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, butterflies hover above sticky monkeyflower, bush sunflower and mariposa lilies, each muscling through soft-leaved coastal sage scrub and purple needlegrass. The habitat stages periodic incursions into the miles and miles of trails — a hikers' paradise — overlooking the long, lazy breakers of the Pacific.

For nearly two decades, Rancho Palos Verdes and the nonprofit Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy have been quietly working to acquire key parcels along the Palos Verdes coastline — from Lunada Canyon Preserve and Barkentine Canyon to Abalone Cove, Forrestal Nature Preserve and Shoreline Park — to complete what will be L.A. County's newest preserve, the Portuguese Bend Nature Preserve.

Other pieces of the conservancy's pie include the noncontiguous 102-acre White Point Nature Preserve, 36-acre George F Canyon Nature Park and Preserve and 29-acre Linden H. Chandler Preserve.

Capping the project, the groups have obtained funding to acquire 460 unprotected acres of key habitat in Portuguese Bend. According to Barbara Dye, executive director of the conservancy, the creation of the preserve will be final in January. The conservancy is also working to close a second deal for 200 acres that would boost the total size of the preserve to 1,400 acres.

The parcels under the stewardship of the conservancy are home to an array of wildlife and endangered species. For example, trails along the Chandler Preserve cut through grasslands replanted with deerweed and nettle as well as a recently restored wetland area in Rolling Hills Estates. The preserve also features the newly reintroduced Palos Verdes blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche lygdamus palosverdesensis) that was thought to be extinct until 1994 when it was discovered on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Part of the new preserve, 163-acre Forrestal Canyon, hosts a large population of the rare Crossosoma californicum, a shrub previously found only on Santa Catalina, San Clemente and Guadalupe islands. In March, the Western tailed-blue butterfly, thought to be extinct, was discovered there.

Eagle-eyed hikers in Forrestal can also catch a glimpse of the endangered California gnatcatcher, flitting about on a loop trail in the box canyon, which has spectacular ocean views.

According to Dye, the conservancy will work on improving the trails and habitat restoration after the acquisition of the parcels in Portuguese Bend. "Once the preserve is established," she says, "the land will be fully protected for hiking, bird watching, horseback riding and cycling. It's a beautiful, pristine coastal setting."

— Janet Cromley

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Ballona Wetlands 190 acres Coastal marsh/wetland Ongoing restoration

TALK about a scrap of land in need of some love: Look no further than the Ballona Wetlands. Marshes once dotted the Southern California coast almost everywhere a creek or river flowed to the ocean. Now Ballona is the last coastal wetland in Los Angeles County.

Once comprising more than 2,000 acres scattered across Venice, Marina del Rey and parts of West Los Angeles, over the decades the wetlands have been reduced by urban development to less than 190 acres bordered by the ocean, LAX and Marina del Rey.

Environmentalists have drawn a line in the sand at Ballona. Working with private developers and government agencies, they are trying to save the marsh from the bulldozer and restore sullied portions of the land.

The nonprofit Ballona Wetlands Foundation has embarked on a restoration project that would increase wetland habitat to 250 acres, with an additional 100 acres of native terrestrial habitat (dunes, scrub, transitional freshwater marsh, transitional salt marsh, native grassland and a plant nursery).

"There's just so very few areas left where there's even a possibility to re-create that habitat," says Mary Small, Ballona project manager for the state Coastal Conservancy.

It is one of the most hard-fought land-use controversies in Southern California. Environmentalists battle, acre by acre, to save the parcel from the Playa Vista project. Dirt dredged up and dumped on the site has cut the wetlands off from Ballona Creek and tidal flows, subverting the ecosystem.

Help is on the way on other fronts. The Port of Los Angeles agreed this fall to spend $31 million to purchase and restore marshes including Ballona wetlands to offset expansion of the harbor. The state acquired 600 acres of the wetlands and has $25 million in restoration funds from voter-approved Proposition 12.

A long-term restoration plan is in the works, and public meetings are planned for early next year. With political will, money and time, Los Angeles may yet reclaim its last coastal marsh — good news for dozens of plant and animal species that thrive in marshes and for people who need a dose of nature near the paved world.

"It's a chance to see the natural landscape and see what the L.A. coast used to be like," says Paul Herzog of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust.

— Gary Polakovic

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Orange County Great Park 1,100 acres Lakes, streams and marshland Scheduled to open 2008

A chain-link fence surrounds what remains of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station: miles of cracked asphalt, a city of rusting military buildings, mountains of dried tumbleweeds and acres of parched, undeveloped land.

Within three years, however, this expanse will begin a caterpillar-like metamorphosis into one of the nation's largest metropolitan parks, an 1,100-acre recreational area with streams, lakes, soccer fields, hiking trails and vast stretches of green open space.

Creation of the park was set in motion in 2002 when Orange County voters killed plans to build a commercial airport on the base. Last February, the U.S. Navy sold the 3,700-acre base to home builder Lennar Corp. for $649.5 million. In exchange for construction rights, Lennar donated 1,375 acres to Irvine for roads, parking and a new park.

Lennar plans to develop the rest of the land with homes and commercial, industrial and office space.

The project — dubbed Irvine's Great Park — not only adds much-needed parkland to a congested urban area but also connects more than 70,000 acres of open space, including the Cleveland National Forest, the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve, the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park.

"This is something that is going to be built to last for centuries," says Michael Pinto, vice chairman of the Orange County Great Park Corp., the nonprofit organization formed to build and operate the park. The group's board of directors is expected to choose a park designer this month. Funding will come from developer's fees, tax assessments, bonds and levies.

A key component of the project, according to Pinto and other park supporters, is a wildlife corridor that will allow deer, coyotes, bobcats, rabbits, mountain lions and other creatures a passageway to travel from as far away as the Cleveland National Forest to the coast.

Gail Prothero, a Sierra Club conservationist, says corridors improve wildlife survival rates by giving animals access to additional hunting and grazing lands and more potential mates.

"The problem with just an island of open space is you are not going to get the genetic diversity that is needed," she says.

— Hugo Martín

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Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor 17,000 acres Oak woodland and coastal sage Open, with ongoing acquisitions

URBAN sprawl has left little room for wildlife to roam in our megalopolis. But there's a chunk of territory where free-ranging creatures — from four to two legs — can still rove the natural world even near the middle of the city.

The Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor, southeast of Los Angeles, shelters a 25-mile strip of wild land where bobcats and coyotes can make a living and migrating birds check in for pit stops on their way to Mexico.

Stretching from the Cleveland National Forest at Coal Canyon across the Puente Hills north of Brea to Whittier, the rolling country of woodland oak and coastal sage is also a refuge for hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers and nature lovers on paths such as the Skyline Trail.

"It's a fabulous resource. It's a hilly Griffith Park. People can get out and feel like they're in nature in the city," says Jeff Yann of the Sierra Club's Puente-Chino Hills Task Force.

Conservationists have been working for a couple of decades to preserve the area as a wildlife corridor, saving 17,000 acres so far, including the establishment of Chino Hills State Park, which links through Coal Canyon to the Cleveland National Forest. The ultimate goal is a trail that would extend from the Angeles National Forest at the northern end of the corridor to the Cleveland forest in the south. But two parcels in the middle of the corridor are threatened by development.

The tracts, like much of the area, were spared the bulldozer for cattle grazing and oil wells over the years. Now they are being eyed for housing, as well as a possible reservoir for the City of Industry in Tonner Canyon. About 3,600 homes and a golf course have been proposed for the corridor's midsection.

Even with producing oil wells, the habitat has remained the home of endangered species such as the arroyo toad and threatened birds. But a housing incursion wouldn't be as amenable, cutting the corridor in half.

In 2006, corridor supporters hope to keep development at bay through negotiations with the owners of one of the tracts, Shell and ExxonMobil. They are also looking at supporting a possible state water bond act that could help provide funds to preserve the hills as a watershed.

Joe Robinson

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Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve 1,300 acres Saltwater tidal marsh Open, with ongoing restoration

THE landscape is scarred and graded over. Dredges churn the waterways and cranes hang over the skyline. Vegetation is spotty, the mudflats littered. A falcon ignores the "no trespassing" sign to perch on a chain-link fence. An old asphalt road slowly crumbles under the sun. In the distance, donkey-head rigs slowly suck oil from the ground.

This is the battlefield after a 30-year war.

Orange County conservationists rejoice in the scene. They won. Not everything, but plenty.

The Bolsa Chica wetlands are being restored.

Skirmishes still remain over pockets of privately held parcels. But of 1,700 precious acres of wetlands and bluffs, 1,300 acres are expected to be in public hands by the end of the year, permanently preserved. A proposed subdivision of 5,000 homes, webbed with roads and overlooking a marina, was ripped out of the planning maps for the sake of tidal marsh, free-ranging wildlife habitat and open space.

One of the last and most important of Southern California's wetlands, located along Pacific Coast Highway just south of the Los Angeles-Orange County line, Bolsa Chica is now headed back in time toward something like it was.

This is the work of voters, who approved the millions needed to buy essential parcels. It is the work of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which poured millions more into the restoration as part of their coastal mitigation obligations. Most of all, it is the work of an army of volunteers and activists.

A landmark event occurred recently when a channel was dredged to reopen the southern part of Bolsa Chica to the ocean. Tidal water now flows into an old and long-dry bay.

"This is going to be a refuge for animals; it's going to be a refuge for people. It's going to be a place where you can come and be able to exhale and experience nature in the midst of all this intense urbanization," says Flossie Horgan, co-founder of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. "It's going to be a jewel in our midst."

— John Balzar

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