Matching Nature With Urban Population Growth

By Pat Brennan
UPPER NEWPORT BAY, CA– The payoff at the end of a winding walk along the marsh’s edge: a football-shaped nest, woven of grass, cupped in the branches of a cholla cactus.

The nest could stand as a symbol of success–so far, at least–for the Nature Reserve of Orange County, a 37,000-acre network of public and private land meant to be a permanent home for 39 native animal species.

The reserve marks its 10-year anniversary next month, one celebrated by Orange County scientists, conservationists and wildland managers, but likely to pass largely unnoticed by the public.

Even among those who use Orange County wilderness parks and open lands–many of them part of the reserve–the reserve’s existence is known only by a few.

The reserve grew out of the gnatcatcher wars of the early 1990s, when the federal listing of a small, gray songbird as a threatened species touched off a public policy crisis.

Much of the county was privately owned and ideally suited for lucrative development. And much of the same land was home to increasingly rare native species–with the California Gnatcatcher as their standard-bearer. It looked like landowners and activists would go head to head in a long and costly fight.

The reserve was a compromise: landowners, environmental activists, scientists and county planners sat down together to hammer out which parcels would be preserved and which developed.

In exchange for voluntarily setting aside some parcels for conservation, landowners would be granted streamlined approvals for developing other parcels, with less endangered-species red tape – a provision, known as “no surprises,” that is still being litigated by activists who oppose the idea.

The reserve–actually two clusters of land, one near Laguna Beach and one near the Cleveland National Forest–was approved by the county Board of Supervisors in 1996. It includes state and county park land that had already been set aside for protection, as well as 21,000 acres of land donated by the Irvine Co.

But the big advance, reserve planners said, was in how the land would be protected: all under a single umbrella of management intended to foster native habitat throughout the reserve, protecting 39 animal species and their habitats.

Initially called the “Natural Communities Conservation Plan,” and one of many similar plans developed around the state and nation, the reserve later received its less cumbersome name: the Nature Reserve of Orange County.

A second reserve of about 133,000 acres was approved by county supervisors last month for southern Orange County, but still awaits state and federal approval.

The nests at Upper Newport Bay are those of 10 relocated Cactus Wrens, which haven’t been seen in the area for years. The wrens, whose population has crashed in the coastal portion of the Nature Reserve since the Laguna Beach fire of 1993, were brought from an area further inland that was slated for development.

After five months, most of the wrens seem to be doing fine and even thriving in their new home, though two of the young have vanished, said Nature Reserve ecologist Milan Mitrovich. They might have become meals for hawks.

The wren relocation is a sign of the maturing science that has grown out of the reserve, where researchers are constantly sampling, measuring and observing to gauge whether wildlife is being protected. –Orange County Register