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Tejon Ranch EIRs nearing completion
Environmental opponents get ready to battle

By Tina Forde, Antelope Valley Press Staff Writer | November 24, 2007

As environmental impact reports on two planned developments at Tejon Ranch - the largest contiguous expanse of land under single ownership in California - work their way toward completion in 2008, opponents are lining up their own battle plans.

The Sierra Club has created a Tejon Ranch Task Force whose members will examine issues including biology, geology, hydrology, traffic, buildings standards and water. "The group is putting together resources to respond (to the EIRs)," said Henry Schultz, chairman of the Santa Clarita group of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. "They split up into tasks and break into topics by different groups and different areas."

Sierra Club Conservation Program Coordinator Jennifer Robinson, in Los Angeles, said two staff members and volunteers are working with other environmental groups on the effort to stop or minimize development at Tejon Ranch.

"We're working on some education," Robinson said. "We are trying to let residents of local areas know about the proposals. With a development like this, it's hard to know what stages the developers are in."

Environmental impact reports for the 23,000-home community of Centennial, in the Los Angeles County portion of the ranch, and for the Tejon Mountain Village community, near Interstate 5 at Lebec and extending up Bear Trap Canyon, will be ready for public scrutiny sometime in 2008, according to Barry Zoeller, vice president, director of corporate communications for Tejon Ranch Co.

"We are confident that the plans for Centennial and Tejon Mountain Village will be environmentally sensitive, will set a new standard in California and will serve as a model for how future development should take place," Zoeller said. "The public will realize this is the way to plan."

While challenging development on Tejon Ranch is a shared mission, the ultimate goal for the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Native Plant Society, The Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society and other environmental activist groups is to transform most of the 270,000-acre ranch into a state or national park.

Robinson said the Sierra Club "hopes to see a park on a large portion of land. … We would like to see 240,000 of those acres preserved."

"We're hoping Tejon Ranch will continue to be good stewards of the land," she said. "We look ahead to more preservation of the land. We want to make sure the critical habitat is preserved and there is public access where appropriate."

Eileen Anderson, staff biologist for the Tuscon-based Center for Biological Diversity, calls Tejon Ranch "the epicenter of natural California."

From a biological viewpoint, she said, "It's an incredible area. It's the only place where four ecosystems converge - the southern Sierras, the western Mojave Desert, the Central Valley and the Transverse ranges (the mountains covered by the Angeles and Los Padres national forests)."

The ecoregions make contact in the ranch property, which creates a link for plants and animals to move through, Anderson said, enabling genetic flow and robust populations. The ranch is a "biodiversity hot spot," she said, containing "charismatic megafauna:" bear, deer, bobcats and mountain lions as well as the plant habitats that support them. Tejon Ranch, she said, "retains the quintessential California landscape - oak woodlands, riparian streams - and it's a microcosm of what California looked like before the building of tons of houses."

Anderson, whose Center for Biological Diversity was the lead advocacy group that sued to stop expansion of the Tejon Industrial Complex - delaying construction for 4 years until the 5th District Court of Appeals approved the final EIR April 9, 2007 - said the ranch recently made a good decision.

"To Tejon's credit," she said, "they no longer allow lead shot (for hunting) on the ranch."

On the other hand, she said, the ranch's proposed 100,000-acre set-aside for preservation "doesn't address our concern" about the north-south, east-west ecological linkages.

Reed Holderman, executive director of the San-Francisco-based, national nonprofit conservation organization The Trust for Public Land, which partnered with Tejon Ranch in 2003 to develop a proposal to set aside 100,000 ranch acres as a natural preserve - including a 37,000-acre site for condors - confirmed the ecological importance of the property: "The ranch is home to many rare and endangered species and has one of the largest unspoiled oak woodlands in the state. It is also the connecting point for four distinct regional ecosystems, including a critical wildlife corridor that links the Pacific Coast to the Sequoias in the Sierra Nevada Mountains."

The ranch, publicly held and traded on the New York Stock Exchange, lies in southern Kern County about 30 miles south of Bakersfield and 60 miles north of Los Angeles in northern Los Angeles County, spreading across the western Antelope Valley's grasslands, rolling foothills, San Joaquin Valley flatlands and 7,000-foot Tehachapi Mountains. At 426 square miles, the ranch is about 40% the size of Rhode Island.

Proponents of turning the land into a park face a major hurdle.

"We're the landowner," said Zoeller. "Nothing will happen without us doing it. It can't be forced from the outside.

"We don't view it as a threat. We as a company are committed to conservation. We call for an extensive portion of the ranch to remain natural forever."

The developments will not inhibit the regional ecological flow, Zoeller said.

In addition to The Trust for Public Land, the Pacific Crest Trail Association has taken a proactive rather than adversarial position to gain environmental traction.

"We're still in negotiation with Tejon Ranch," said Liz Bergeron , executive director of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which is mapping a trail through the property. "We've spent quite a bit of time on the ranch. We have a route that we'd like to see happen. We're pretty much in agreement."

The approximately 35-mile trail through the ranch would be a triumph for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which wanted to open a route through the ranch in 1968 when Congress first authorized the 2,650-mile-long passage from Mexico to Canada as part of the National Trails System. The owners of the ranch then refused access, and the route snaked along jagged property lines on the Antelope Valley desert floor and adjacent to the California Aqueduct - a section of the trail that has become known as the worst part of the entire trail for its lack of water and dismal conditions.

In addition to a narrow "trail tread," Pacific Crest Trail negotiations include a view corridor which takes into account what the hikers see as they progress. Zoeller said, "It's a significant piece of property - 15,000 acres they'll be using."

"It's the first time we've at a look at different areas," Bergeron said. "It's a beautiful landscape with incredible views and awesome wildlife. I'll miss that Aqueduct walk."

Representatives of other environmental groups have yet to see the beauty firsthand.

"I have not been there," said Anderson, who relies on decades-old state records for information on species and natural resources.

Schultz said his group has been to Wind Wolves private nature preserve on the west side of I-5 from Tejon Ranch to get a feeling for the natural landscape of the ranch.

"Not many people have been to Tejon Ranch," the Sierra Club's Schultz said. "One of the best ways to learn about it is from Huell Howser's shows on DVD. He was invited to the ranch and toured around. It's the best view I've had."

More than 100 firms are involved in the EIR process for the two proposed developments, Zoeller said, and hundreds of people are studying "everything" on the ranch, including geology, botany, biology and hydrology.

The EIRs, he said, "are an exhaustive look at the potential impact and mitigations of the impact," and "the scale and scope of the research is leaving no stone unturned to complete a thorough job."

"The cost of the planning, studies and environmental documents for Centennial and Tejon Mountain Village is $70 million to date. It's close enough to the end we hope it won't be a lot more. It takes a significant investment and a complex process to do land development in California. If you want to do it right you have to be able to make that kind of investment. That's what it takes to create fine quality communities."

The third area of development on the ranch, the Tejon Industrial Complex, near Grapevine Center at Laval Road and home of the IKEA distribution center, is partially built out, and the section of industrial land east of I-5 that was challenged in court is "approved and entitled," Zoeller said.

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