PRO: The Tejon agreement is a true conservation victory

by Graham Chisholm

Anyone reading about the Tejon Ranch -- California’s largest contiguous private property -- has probably heard about the three controversial development projects: Tejon Industrial Park, the Tejon Mountain Village and the Centennial Planned Community.

But have you heard about the Tejon Golf and Hunting Resort, or maybe the Whitewolf Village and Shopping Center? People haven’t heard about them because they’re not going to be built, and thanks to a sweeping conservation agreement between several environmental groups and the Tejon Ranch Co., they never will be.

At stake are hundreds of thousands of acres in Kern and Los Angeles counties, filled with oaks, white fir, Joshua trees and grasslands -- all of it native habitat for the California condor and many other rare species.

For a time, our best hope to save this land was to do what we conservationists always do: Battle it out in the courts and in the media, knowing full well that while we might win some battles, we would also lose others. However, even if we were successful in tying up the developments in court, the ranch could simply have responded by selling off its nearly 1,000 legal parcels. The resulting checkerboard landscape of development and open space would do little to help birds, wildlife and habitat.

Fortunately, all parties were willing to sit down and reason out a solution that made more sense for the future of this remarkable landscape.

The agreement, negotiated by Audubon California, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Endangered Habitats League and the Planning and Conservation League, secures permanent protection of 375 square miles -- eight times the size of San Francisco and about 90 percent of the Tejon Ranch. The settlement also provides funding for an independent science-driven conservancy to restore the land and ensure public access. Thirty-seven miles of the Pacific Crest Trail will be re-routed through the property, and the creation of a major state park will allow the public to enjoy this incredible place.

In exchange, we have agreed not to oppose three developments on the remaining 10 percent of the ranch. These developments -- none of which have been approved yet by regulatory agencies -- will undergo full public review and be subject to all environmental protection laws.

Of course, no development at all would have been preferable. But one has only to look around Kern and Los Angeles counties and see what is happening on privately held land to understand that this outcome is just wishful thinking. To commit ourselves to years of fighting for a pipe dream would have been irresponsible. It would have meant gambling with California’s most biologically diverse property, particularly in light of the opportunity this agreement presents right now.

Since the agreement was announced, concerns have been raised about whether this agreement protects the California condor. Ever since I saw my first California condor, just west of the Tejon Ranch in August 1983, I have understood the magic of this bird. Speaking on behalf of Audubon, an organization that has been out front since the 1930s in the battle to save the condor, I can say that this endangered species was our foremost concern.

We reviewed condor flight data and consulted with eminent condor scientists, including Pete Bloom, Lloyd Kiff and Bob Risebrough. Bloom is a hero in the fight to save the condor, and the stories of him lying in holes to catch and protect the last wild condors in the ‘80s are still told and re-told with a sense of awe. Without people like him, there likely would be no condors left.

Bloom, Kiff and Risebrough had total freedom to analyze the plans and agree or disagree, and to do so publicly. They made a number of strong recommendations, and each was incorporated into the plan. The agreement provides for the protection of the overwhelming majority of the ranch’s vast backcountry condor habitat and also gives long-term funding for condor conservation.

We recognize that scientists often disagree. Nothing in our agreement precludes such critics or any other members of the public from participating in the review process conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or any of the many other review processes related to the area’s developments. Those review processes will have the ultimate say as to whether the proposal meets the condor’s needs.

If the Fish and Wildlife Service believes that additional steps are warranted, it will require them, and in so doing will build on the clear and certain conservation outcomes achieved by the Tejon Ranch Agreement.

Graham Chisholm is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is director of conservation for Audubon California and lives in Berkeley, California.

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