Orange County is known for its miles of tract homes, car traffic and a booming economy. Much of that growth is due to the work of the Irvine Company, which has shaped a swath of the central county through its control and development of 93,000 acres that were once one of California's great ranches.
But beyond the residences and gleaming office towers the Irvine Company has built over the past 45 years, the company also, more quietly, committed a great deal of the old Irvine Ranch property to parkland. Altogether it has kept 50,000 acres in parkland. Many of the parks are of the landscaped neighborhood variety, a key selling point to its master-planned communities. But recently the company deviated from ballfields and tot lots by completing paperwork on a 20-year old plan to turn over 20,000 acres in open space to the county.
Even environmentalists are relatively happy with this one.
"This is the largest single donation of land in the County's history," said Marisa O'Neil, public information officer for OC Parks, the county agency which will manage the property. "OC Parks does not have plans to develop any of it as manicured parklands. We will keep the natural character to it and allow people to make their own connections to the land."
Some of the Irvine Company's most valuable development has occurred in the coastal plains of Orange County, where cooling breezes and ocean views are selling points. The city of Irvine is located there, and the company has built it into a community of over 200,000 residents.
Almost all of the donated land is in the hotter northern reaches of the county, lying south of the Riverside Freeway and east of the Cleveland National Forest. Full of canyons and steep mountains, it contains areas that could have been developed into housing or industry. Instead, about all that runs through it is State Route 241, a north-south toll road. Much of the new parkland is located in unincorporated county land.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors accepted 20,000 acres of permanent protected open space and parklands from the Irvine Company on June 29. The land will be managed for the next three years by the Irvine Ranch Foundation, a non-profit started with help from the Irvine Company.
The Irvine Company's well-known chairman, billionaire Donald Bren, started the path towards the donation in 1990 when the Irvine Company began a collaboration with the Nature Conservancy, to survey and manage company-owned wildlands. At the time, it was announced that the land would ultimately be turned over to public ownership.
The recent transfer to the county completed a 20-year process.
When the donation was originally announced, "everyone looked at 'what's the catch'"? recalled Dan Silver, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Endangered Habitats League. "No one ever found a catch. The only concern was how the county would pay for it and how it would manage it."
For the next three years, the Irvine Ranch Foundation will manage the land at a cost of nearly $1.6 million. The Irvine Company is also providing $4 million to establish the Orange County Parks Foundation, which will be combined with $2 million from the Nature Conservancy to help with land monitoring and new park infrastructure.
The transfer of the property was watched closely by Orange County environmental groups, who formed a steering committee last year to monitor it. Members included representatives of such groups as the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Laguna Greenbelt, Hills for Everyone and Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks.
The committee said it had four major concerns about the transfer: making sure the land kept its conservation protections, funding, and that it had a resource management plan and an independent oversight committee.
"The county has assured us that these elements are or will be in place," said Jean Watt, President of the Friends of the Harbors, Beaches and Parks, in a press release at the time of the transfer.
But Watt made it clear that the environmentalists will be monitoring the transfer. "Because we want the land transfer to succeed, we are accepting the county's assurances in a leap of faith. For now."
The donated land includes land that is part of the largest Natural Communities Conservation Plan in Orange County, the central/coastal subregion NCCP. The NCCP was formed in the 1990s, to set aside open space land for endangered and threatened species in the region, including the California Gnatcatcher and Cactus Wren, and to allow development on other land. The donated land includes areas that have been designated as both California and National Natural Landmarks for their outstanding geological and biological features. Of the 20,000 acres transferred by the Irvine Company to Orange County, 9,500 acres is in the Central Coastal subregion NCCP, according to Michael O'Connell, executive director of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.
The transferred land is nearly five times the size of Los Angeles' Griffith Park and dwarfs the 843 acres of New York's Central Park. In contrast, Yosemite National Park is 761,000 acres.
"From my own perspective, this gift is largely unprecedented," said O'Connell. "There have been large donations of land to the public throughout California's history, and they have all become places are cherished today and will be into the future. The difference here, however, is that instead of being way up North somewhere or out in the remote Sierras, this land is right in our own backyard."
He added, "It's big, and incredibly valuable, piece of nature that's close by and can be experienced and cared for as a part of the community, as opposed to a place you have to take a vacation and go visit. The land is valuable that I doubt funding could have ever been raised to buy it."
Silver of the Endangered Habitats League said much of the transferred land has been damaged due to extensive cattle grazing and mammoth fires that have burned through the area.
Marisa O'Neil, Public Information Officer, OC Parks, (714) 973-6870
John Christensen, Irvine Company spokesman (949) 720-2000
Michael O'Connell, executive director, Irvine Ranch Conservancy (949)735-0394
Dan Silver, Executive Director, Endangered Habitats League (213)804-2750