Where the Wild Things Are. Still.
A deal that one activist called Southern California's Louisiana Purchase will make life easier for game animals and other species
By Edward Humes
Tejon Ranch, more than a quarter-million acres of valley oak, feral pigs, and just plain wild.
Bumping down Canyon del Gato Montes in Tom Maloney's dust-splashed Ford provides a whirlwind demonstration of why so many ecologists, geologists, herpetologists, birders, desert rats, and self-professed "oak geeks" are swooning over the new Tejon Ranch Conservancy: It is nature's theme park writ large, the real California Adventure, now open to the outside world for the first time in 140 years.
This half-hour ride down the canyon, a vivid slice from a daylong trek through the ranch, began 2,000 feet up at Ridge Road. The ridge overlooks rows of foothills covered with the gray-green foliage and dinosaur-skin bark of blue oak, black oak, and brewer's oak and, just beyond, a hillside of coast live oak and sycamore. The hardwood trees have grown so dense that we can't see
a scrap of ground through their dark canopies. Above them on the highest ridgelines, white fir dominates. A red-tailed hawk stares back at us from the tallest fir branch. Down a neighboring canyon--mere minutes away--thick stands of incense cedar congregate around El Paso Creek, a shady glade swarming with ladybugs and filled with the wood-shaving aroma of cedar bark.
Barreling down Gato Montes, we pass the canyon live oaks standing like gnarled kings in a red-bloomed field of California buckwheat. The mouth of the canyon approaches, and the road curves, offering up a final surprise. As a string of wild black pigs spooks and races off, the Ford makes the turn, kicking up a cloud of acrid brown dust and revealing a forest of Joshua trees. They twist up from a desert that seems to appear out of nowhere, cloaked in the shimmer of heat waves. The shock of this magical transition makes me gasp.
From left: A fern in Upper Tejon Canyon; red ladybugs carpet a cedar; Tom Maloney, executive director of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, surrounded by San Joaquin Valley grasslands at sunrise.
One canyon, one breathtaking ride, four separate California ecologies crammed together in an ultimate TripTik: We have seen South Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, and Mojave Desert, all converging and commingling in one of nature's great mosh pits, Tejon Ranch.
Some of California's oldest and largest oak forests grow here, with 16 of the state's 23 native oak species represented. Mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, and pronghorn roam here. The endangered California condor forages in fragile numbers on the ranch, where the skies were once black with the giant birds. There is no other place like Tejon Ranch in California--and perhaps in the world.
"This place just blows everyone away," says Maloney, the fledgling executive director of the fledgling Tejon Ranch Conservancy. "I took a botanist on a tour last spring, and she was mesmerized, staring and muttering to herself, and finally she jumped out of the car and started crawling through the brush. She said, 'There's 40 different plant species here, and none of them are supposed to be together. This is unbelievable!'"
Maloney laughs. "We hear that a lot. We say that a lot."
The horned lizard (left), threatened in California; Sierra Nevada habitat gives way to the Mojave Desert in Canyon del Gato Montes (right).
His job requires as much office time as fieldwork, but he seems less the boardroom type and more at home tromping through the scrub, his trusty Swarovski scope and Sibley bird guide in hand, lips puckered to whistle, tweet, or scold some nearby jay or wren. No conversation with Maloney is complete unless it is punctuated by an excited pointing skyward at some passing passerine, or the occasional birdcall inserted like a parenthetical phrase--his enthusiasm making it all quite charming.
"Look, that's an acorn woodpecker," he whispers, interrupting himself, then pointing out the canyon oaks with beautifully sculpted and hollowed limbs, painstakingly shaped by woodpeckers that use them to store their acorns.
The job of getting a handle on the single-largest conservation dedication of private land in state history has been the challenge of a lifetime for the tall and lanky naturalist. Maloney's first months on the job have been beyond busy, as the former project director for the Nature Conservancy organizes botanical and faunal surveys of a vast landscape that has not been systematically studied since the days of John Xantus de Vesey, the exiled Hungarian naturalist who sent astonishing specimens to the Smithsonian Institution--in the 1850s. Now there are bird counts and riparian surveys to undertake, "citizen science" expeditions to organize, and climate analyses to launch, essential for shaping conservation practices for a warmer future. Camera traps have been set to monitor wildlife activity in sensitive habitats.
Maloney also conducts tours for guests ranging from VIPs to inner-city kids hungry for exposure to nature, and he is organizing a new docent program with nature and resource groups so that the once-closed-and-gated ranch can be opened to hiking and guided public access. "It has been a bit busy," he concedes.
Nonetheless, Maloney, 45, unabashedly calls building this new conservancy from the ground up his dream job, perhaps the only lure that could have pulled him from his resource-management work in California's Central Coast region, which includes the Carrizo Plain, an area referred to, without hyperbole, as the state's Serengeti. "If there is one word to sum up the experience here so far, it is discovery," he says. "Every day I'm out here on the ranch brings a new one."
The Tejon Ranch Conservancy came into being in May 2008, an unexpected partnership between the Tejon Ranch Company, Audubon California, the Planning and Conservation League, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Endangered Habitats League, and the Sierra Club. The agreement designates up to 90 percent of the 270,000-acre ranch for permanent conservation in exchange for the environmental groups' commitment to refrain from opposing development on the remaining acreage. The owners want to build a luxury mountain resort in the ranch's westernmost high country, near condor habitat, and a separate development of 23,000 homes in the southern lowland corner--a new city of 18.4 square miles and 70,000 people to rise between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.
The development plans face continued opposition from other environmental groups, tribal officials, and local residents concerned about sprawl, traffic, endangered species, dwindling water supplies, and climate change. But there is widespread agreement on all sides that the lands, habitats, and species to be preserved by the conservancy have enormous, even epic value. Bill Corcoran, the Sierra Club's senior representative for the region at the time of the conservation agreement and one of its negotiators, called its impact on Southern California the "ecological equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase."
Mike White, the conservancy's newly hired conservation director, says the concentrated variation of landscapes, climates, and elevations at Tejon makes it a living laboratory for species resilience and adaptation. White cites as one example the divergence of two closely related reptiles on the ranch: the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the long-nosed leopard lizard. They are, in essence, the Darwin's finches of Tejon, and scientists--from climate experts to oak specialists to condor mavens--are lining up for a shot at studying the environment that produced them.
"Tejon is a profoundly important place for understanding these processes," White says. "You can almost watch evolution happen here."
Tejon is Spanish for "badger," the creature that, according to legend, confronted the first Spanish soldiers to enter Tejon Canyon in the heart of the ranch. The land has long been coveted for its fertility, beauty, and strategic location on the historic Grapevine route through the Tehachapi Mountains--occupied by the Yokuts and several other Native American tribes, claimed by Mexico in the 19th century, then finally made U.S. terrain after California's admission to the Union in 1848.
Fort Tejon was established in 1854 by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a storied military man, explorer, and land baron. Beale used his presidential appointments as California superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, surveyor general of California and Nevada, and chief Indian negotiator for the U.S. Army to sequester the local tribes on reservations, then buy up Fort Tejon and four rancheros to form the present-day boundaries of Tejon Ranch.
The Beale family sold the ranch for $3 million in 1912 to a consortium of investors led by real estate magnate Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. The Times Mirror Company eventually took the Tejon Ranch Company public, laid and canceled plans for massive development in the 1980s, and finally sold the property to the investment group that now controls the land.
Throughout, Tejon Ranch has been a place for grazing, hunting, cowboys on horseback, and a few other activities--a leaseholder cement plant, some small-scale oil production, a bit of farming.
Despite the constant presence of cattle, Maloney says, the landscape has remained surprisingly intact. So when the current ownership announced ambitious new development plans on the 420-square-mile ranch, environmental groups began to take an interest, and some of the first modern studies of the property's conservation significance commenced--by none other than Mike White, then working for the Conservation Biology Institute. He was limited at the time to literally "peeking over the fence" at a ranch owned by developers disinterested in cooperating with conservationists, but his series of three reports, beginning in 2003, nonetheless put Tejon Ranch on the radar as a top priority for the state's major environmental groups.
In 2008, the agreement that spawned the Tejon Ranch Conservancy was signed, providing for the creation of conservation easements and open space on 178,000 acres. The conservancy also got the option to buy additional easements over the next two years--at market value--on another 62,000 acres of land, including a highly prized native grasslands area of Antelope Valley that Maloney calls an "absolute must." The agreement--which mirrors many of the recommendations White worked up years earlier--also envisions the creation of a state park (on indefinite hold because of California's budget crisis) and realigning a 37-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail through the property. This West Coast version of the Appalachian Trail, running from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, will in coming years traverse the Tehachapis through the heart of the ranch, as was always intended, instead of its current traipse through Mojave lowlands.
California, of course, is rife with extraordinary desert, mountain, coastal, and forest landscapes, from the lushness of Sequoia National Forest to the sparse beauty of Joshua Tree National Park. What makes Tejon Ranch, the largest piece of private property in the state, so special--and gives it such high conservation value--is its role as a crossroads for so many different landscapes and biomes.
An ecological map of the region tells the story in a glance. The South Coast Ranges, the San Joaquin Valley, the Mojave, and the Sierra Nevada all meet along the Grapevine as it climbs from the L.A. basin toward the ranch. Like a keystone in a great arch, Tejon Ranch lies at the nexus of those four regions, occupying a footprint nine times the size of San Francisco. With the adjacent valley converted almost entirely to agriculture, homes, and oil, the ranch provides the only corridor between the regions for wildlife migration, the only way to keep the vast landscapes connected and intact, and the only chance to fill the gap in protected lands, forests, and parks to the north and south.
"Anywhere on Earth, the chance to plug that sort of gap would be a high priority," says Maloney. "But then you add this convergence of ecosystems, and that's why Tejon Ranch has been the big kahuna for so many conservationists."
"Goddamn pigs," Maloney mutters for the third time today, as he surveys a stand of oaks and gooseberry near a small stream, badly browsed, trampled, and soiled by wild pigs feasting on acorns. "They think they own the place. And they kinda do."
Pigs, to Maloney's surprise, seem to be the biggest animal threat to ecosystems in the ranch--far more damaging than the moderate grazing regimen the ranch employs with its cattle. The grazing, he says, actually keeps nonnative grasses and weeds in check, which in turn helps the ranch's colorful seasonal wildflowers flourish--their riots of springtime color can be seen up and down the Grapevine by passersby on Interstate 5. The pigs, however, are another matter. They were introduced to the ranch by accident in the early 1990s when some animals on neighboring land got loose. They have proved to be a stubborn and wily adversary, even though the ranch sponsors regular hunts that claim 800 to 1,000 pigs each year.
Because of this, Maloney says, one of the conservancy's first priorities is to survey riparian areas that pigs and cows are damaging. Fences around these watersheds, accompanied by careful moving of salt licks and water troughs for the cows, can turn some of these stressed-out habitats into conservation gold mines--"low-hanging fruit for us," Maloney says. UC Santa Barbara professor Frank Davis of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management is working with several graduate students who are surveying these riparian zones for the conservancy as a yearlong master's project. Davis, who also serves on the conservancy's 12-member board, is an oak specialist and one of the scientists who have become entranced by the ranch. He once exclaimed that the ranch was Disneyland for oak geeks, but he later came to rue that metaphor and now prefers to say, "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's an 11."
Traditional uses now in place at Tejon Ranch--cattle grazing, hunting, and existing leases—will continue in the conservation easement areas under the terms of the agreement, although Maloney and his staff say they will gradually be able to propose better land-management practices so that the ranching activities mesh with conservation needs. Hunting, for example, has conservation benefits. It curtails the pig population and provides food for condors, which love to feast on pig guts.
Meanwhile, research efforts spanning every part of the ranch are gearing up, involving academics, volunteers, nature organizations, and what Maloney and White call "citizen scientists." These are the bird lovers, reptile aficionados, and other knowledgeable laypeople with a passion for nature and the ability to gather the large amounts of data that the conservancy needs to establish a baseline for conditions and critters on the ranch. It will take years before Tejon's natural setting is understood.
Not far from Canyon del Gato Montes, Maloney stands at one of his favorite points on the ranch, a ridge overlooking the rolling grasslands studded with valley and canyon oak that he hopes to acquire—if the conservancy can raise the money. This is another spot the Pacific Crest Trail could traverse. Pronghorn leap through the area below, also home to the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. In spring, Maloney stood near this spot transfixed as flocks of birds poured off the desert, coming to Tejon for sanctuary from the summer heat. Now, in fall, different birds are arriving for winter refuge. "I wish I had the time to just birdwatch the whole ranch," he sighs.
By next spring, Maloney says, the relatively small public-access program in place will expand with docent-led tours, and a lot more people will be able to see what Maloney prizes every day. He has invited regional nature organizations to provide guides, docents, birders, and hikers for the program. The response from visitors so far has been one of the more gratifying parts of his work, he says. He was particularly fond of a group of kids from the Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles. One of them, Eddy Chavarria, was moved to leave behind a prose poem that begins,
With the tree so high and me so low, the sky turns green with patches of blue.
In this city of nature I see the skyscrapers where they first start out.
"We read that out loud at the last board meeting," Maloney says. "How cool is that?"
Edward Humes is the author of eight books, including Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet (Ecco, 2009); see "Mixed Media." He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989.
The 270,000 unfragmented acres of Tejon Ranch, bordering the second-most-populous region in the United States, are visible from Interstate 5 as drivers head south into the maw of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The largest chunk of privately owned wilderness in Southern California embraces four of the Golden State's eight eco-regions: the grasslands of the Mojave Desert; the oak woodlands of the Great Central Valley; the chaparral-studded South Coast; and the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada.
Public and private boundaries don't mean much to pronghorn, elk, and other California wildlife. In a warming world, they must be able to move between national parks, wilderness areas, and other public lands to feed, breed, and raise their young. Much of that movement will occur on private land like Tejon Ranch. As stewards of a majority of the nation's lands and waters, private landowners are key partners in building a national system of conservation areas that will secure our natural heritage for the future.
The Tejon Ranch conservation agreement is a crucial part of the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats campaign to protect habitat and migration corridors in every state. One campaign goal is to work with landowners to protect 20 million acres of private lands and waters by 2020. This will require conservationists' supporting the landowners' efforts to manage their property to benefit wildlife, including advocating for financial incentives and other public resources to make doing so as easy as possible. —Bart Semcer
ON THE WEB For more on Resilient Habitats, go to sierraclub.org/habitat. This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Hunter-Angler Program outreach campaign.
WEB EXTRAS See a photo slideshow, an interactive map of plants and animals, and aerial video of Tejon Ranch.
Photos by Ian Shive
Maps: John Blanchard; left: Courtesy of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy; right: Courtesy of the Conservation Biology Institute and South Coast Wildlands
Video courtesy of Tejon Ranch Company