Western Wanderings: The new California

Ever-growing population eyes traditionally uninhabited lands

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Western Wanderings: The new California

Mick Wiggins

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We are ascending a high ridge above Bear Trap Canyon on a stormy spring day. Below us are steep green hillsides, leafing-out oaks, a solitary red-tailed hawk. "The amount of land we're dealing with here is something people drool over," says Reed Holderman, executive director for the Trust for Public Land.

The land is Tejon Ranch, which straddles the border of Los Angeles and Kern Counties in California's Tehachapi Mountains. It is indeed, um, droolable. The ranch is the largest privately owned contiguous piece of property in the state. Its uncertain fate reveals a great deal about California life in 2006.

You've probably seen Tejon Ranch, whether you knew it or not. It's the land that flanks the Grapevine segment of I-5 north of Los Angeles ― the mountains you see while you're driving uphill and worrying about your radiator. The ranch and the mountains form a powerful physical barrier, and also a cultural one. They separate the world of Southern California from the world of the San Joaquin Valley, the swimming pool from the irrigation canal, the bimmer from the John Deere. At least, they used to.

"There are 22 million people within a two-hour drive of Tejon Ranch," says Bob Stine, president and CEO of the Tejon Ranch Company. "There is a huge pent-up demand for housing." And so, after 160 years ― the ranch dates back to 1843 ― of cattle and farming, Tejon is moving into the development business. Stine and his company have proposed a 23,000-home, 60,000-person community called Centennial, and a separate luxury home/spa/hotel complex called Tejon Mountain Village.

Welcome to the new California. As the state continues to grow, that growth is spilling from the coast inland to places that once seemed utterly beyond its reach. Projections are for the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys to increase their population by 13 million by 2050.

Which brings us, again, to Tejon Ranch. "This is one of the most significant land conservation projects anywhere," Holderman says. Along with the land's development, the Tejon Ranch Company and Holderman's organization, the TPL, are proposing to set aside three large chunks of the ranch as nature preserves. Together they comprise 100,000 acres, an area larger than Yosemite Valley.

California has so many brand-name natural wonders that some places have been ignored ― places that, in other states, would have been enshrined as national parks. Tejon Ranch has peaks that rise to more than 6,700 feet; it has clear-running mountain streams and oak woodlands; it has elk, bear, and California condors. "All in all," Holderman says, "this is the most significant land acquisition in our lifetime."

None of this is a done deal. The Centennial and Tejon Mountain Village developments must be approved by Los Angeles and Kern Counties, respectively. The Trust for Public Land must amass political and financial backing to acquire the preserve land from Tejon Ranch. And the environmental community is by no means united in favor of the plan. "Everyone is against it," executive director David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy says flatly. He and other opponents argue that the proposed reserves don't include the most important condor habitat. To this Holderman says, "It would be good to buy everything. But we can't buy everything."

We drive along the ridgetop. We see mountains, we look for condors and ― as always whenever I've looked for condors ― don't see any. But we get an amazing sense of traversing a landscape that has been mostly untouched for centuries. Tejon Ranch always seemed so big, so far away, you thought you didn't have to worry about it. Now you do.

Info: The Trust for Public Land; Tejon Ranch Company

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