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County of Orange Receives Final 20,000 Acres of Open Space and Parklands From Irvine Company, Fulfilling Company’s 30-Year Pledge to the Public

Ushering in a sweeping new era of public ownership and access to thousands of acres of Orange County’s most prized natural lands, the Board of Supervisors today accepted the long-anticipated final gift of more than 20,000 acres of pristine, permanently protected open space and parklands from the Irvine Company. These lands have been designated both a California and National Natural Landmark and are part of a grand total of 50,000 acres of permanently protected open space and parklands located on The Irvine Ranch and donated to Orange County. This unprecedented gift was created through collaborative conservation efforts spanning over 100 years involving the Irvine Company, community organizations, municipalities, government agencies and environmental groups. 

The 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch stretches nine miles along the Pacific coast, 22 miles inland and encompasses more than one-fifth of Orange County’s total 798 square miles. Within its boundaries lie the city of Irvine and parts of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Tustin, Orange and Anaheim, plus unincorporated county land and portions of Santa Ana and Costa Mesa.

The Irvine Ranch is considered one of the largest and most successful master-planned communities in the United States.

For more than 100 years the Irvine Company has treasured the land as a precious resource to be used in ways to benefit the public. It all began in 1897 when the company donated over 300 acres to the people of Orange County. Back then it was called “the picnic grounds,” and today it is known as Irvine Regional Park. And that spirit of preservation and public giving only continued to grow over the decades. The Irvine Company’s solid commitment to open space planning eventually evolved from the creation of parklands to include species and habitat protection with a focus on large-scale land preservation and linking large areas through wildlife corridors.

This exceptional 50,000-acre gift is over 10 times the size of Griffith Park in Los Angeles (4,210 acres) and almost 60 times the size of Central Park in New York (843 acres).

The vast donation of permanently protected land includes: Bommer Canyon, Crystal Cove State Park, Upper Newport Bay, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, and Quail Hill. Today’s gift adds the spectacular Limestone, Fremont, Weir, Black Star and Gypsum canyons to that list.

The seeds for this extraordinary effort began over 30 years ago back in the 1980s with the visionary leadership of Donald Bren and The Irvine Company when they first began targeting tens of thousands of acres in a unique Open Space Initiative.

“When we announced our decision to permanently protect these magnificent lands 30 years ago, we made it very clear that ultimately the land would be owned and enjoyed by the people of Orange County,” Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren said. “Today’s final segment of the gift ensures that these spectacular natural resources will provide a stunning array of outdoor opportunities and will be protected and cared for in perpetuity.”

“Today’s action is a major step in accomplishing the goals articulated when we approved the Strategic Vision Plan for Orange County Parks in 2007,” said Janet Nguyen, Chair of the Board of Supervisors. “These extraordinary lands are treasured for their majestic beauty and biological significance – as evidenced by their official designation as a Natural Landmark by both the State of California and the National Park Service. They will be enjoyed by Orange County residents now and forever. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve public access, trails and resource management
for generations to come.”

In 1990, the Irvine Company announced what was called an “uncommon alliance” with The Nature Conservancy, an internationally prominent non-profit conservation organization, to survey and manage the company-owned wildlands. It was also announced at the time that the land ultimately would be turned over to public ownership. At the time, the transfer was expected to occur within two decades, allowing time for critical long-term planning for stewardship and public access to be created, and to establish the highest possible standards of care for the land. The 20-year timeline turned out to be right on target.

“The Nature Conservancy believes it’s important to manage California’s natural resources for the benefit of both people and nature. Having these lands in public ownership will help keep that balance,” said The Nature Conservancy Senior Project Director Chris Basilevac.

The gift of land to the public is just part of the package of public benefits associated with today’s announcement. In addition to the land, the Irvine Company announced it will also provide $4 million to establish the Orange County Parks Foundation. Combined with a $2 million contribution from The Nature Conservancy, this funding will support a variety of stewardship priorities including land management and monitoring, as well as the development of new park infrastructure related to the lands.

The Irvine Company also announced it will provide $1 million in a
seed grant to launch the new Center for Environmental Biology at the University of California, Irvine, in part to fund several flagship biological research projects that will help provide new recommendations on how to best care for the land.

This brings the Irvine Company’s total financial commitment toward long-range conservation, stewardship and public access to the land to $50 million.

Most of the land being donated today is located in Supervisor Bill Campbell’s Third District, and he explained how today’s action provides an opportunity for OC Parks to continue to fulfill its mission and vision to become more involved with local wildlands.

“As a steward of significant natural and cultural resources, OC Parks’ mission is to manage and operate a system of regional parks, beaches, harbors, trails and historic sites that are places of recreation and enduring value. The land we are accepting today only enhances their opportunity,” said Campbell, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

Some of the permanently protected land included in today’s gift have been designated as a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. National Park Service, and are also the first to be recognized as a California Natural Landmark by the state. Today’s contribution contains pristine wilderness, and represents one of the few places in Southern California where a connected patchwork of preserved habitats stretch all the way from the mountains to the sea.

The land is home to an extraordinarily wide variety of plants and animals, many rare or endangered, and some found nowhere else on earth. Hundreds of species of plants and animals thrive here, including hawks and golden eagles, bobcats and mountain lions, rare Tecate cypress trees, California oak and sycamore woodlands and dozens of species of rare birds, plants, reptiles and amphibians. A wide range of habitats – from shady streamside forests and oak woodlands to rare coastal sage scrub and endangered California native grasslands – support a remarkable array of native wildlife and plants. These diverse natural communities support a diversity of animals, including rare and threatened species, such as the California gnatcatcher and cactus wren — two endangered birds– sociable acorn woodpeckers, coast horned lizards, Western spade-foot toads and even American badgers, and over a dozen species of bats. Conservation scientists have identified the entire region as one of the world’s ecological “hot spots” – an area with large concentrations of species found nowhere else.

Generous funding by the Irvine Company will help provide for long-term research and stewardship to ensure the land is protected and available for people to experience for generations to come. “We are extremely grateful for the grant from the Irvine Company to support the new Center for Environmental Biology,” said Al Bennett, Dean of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. “This funding allows the exceptional leadership of the Center to implement several important, multi-year research projects to help inform stewardship of the land. The Center, the School, and UCI are ideally positioned to promote research at the urban-wilderness interface. We look forward to contributing to the comprehensive management of these magnificent areas."

UC Irvine’s School of Biological Sciences formed the Center for Environmental Biology early in 2010. Center leadership will coordinate research partnerships among UCI scientists and neighboring land managers, institutions and a wide range of researchers. Research will focus on environmental studies that can be translated into long-term management of parks, wilderness and urban ecosystems. Early research partners include the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, the Orange County Great Park, Crystal Cove State Park and a number of other public agencies and land reserves. Dr. Diane Pataki, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Earth System Science at UCI, is the Center’s founding Director.

Beyond their value for conservation, the open spaces and parks included in today’s land gift offer an enormous variety of recreational opportunities, from hiking, horseback riding and mountain bike excursions to bird-watching, trail running and even star gazing.

Many protected areas on the historic Irvine Ranch are already open daily for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy. They can ride mountain bikes among rock-studded hills, enjoy picnics on the beach, paddle a kayak in the Back Bay and toss a Frisbee in a park. The new wildlands add even more opportunity to experience southern California as it was many years ago, through an abundant variety of free, docent-led activities and self-guided wilderness days – from strenuous fitness hikes to family outings. Horses and mountain bikes can transport riders deep into the backcountry full of spectacular mountain and coastal views, and destinations such as The Sinks, Dripping Springs and historic Hangman’s Tree.

Activities are designed for people of all ages and abilities. To sign up for one or more of the various outings available, and to learn about other outdoor opportunities, visit www.irlandmarks.org.