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On May 8, 2008, the Sierra Club and four other leading environmental organizations announced a historic land conservation agreement with the Tejon Ranch Company.
According to Sierra Club Tejon-Tehachapi Park Task Force Chair Katherine Squires, ““The Sierra Club’s Tejon-Tehachapi Park Task Force has worked toward the protection of the unique and critically important ecological treasures at Tejon. This historic agreement achieves that protection. I just think this is extraordinary.”
The agreement protects ninety percent of the 270,000-acre ranch in perpetuity.
An Ecological Treasure
Photo courtesy Bill Martinez - Ridge
Tejon Ranch is “the largest contiguous private property remaining in California and the keystone for southern California’s natural legacy,” says Sierra Club leader Jim Dodson, who represented the Sierra Club in the negotiations.
Vast in size, Tejon Ranch is equally vast in its biodiversity, as it marks the intersection of the Sierra Nevadas, the coastal range, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Mojave Desert. Tejon Ranch offers a quintessentially Californian experience of nature. “In one day, a visitor can see fields of poppies in the Antelope Valley, travel through a Joshua tree forest, roam ridgetops of white fir and cedar incense, descend through oak woodlands and cross a vast plain with views to distant peaks at the western edge of the Central Valley,” says Bill Corcoran, Sierra Club Senior Regional Representative. Corcoran joined Dodson in the negotiations.
The agreement announced May 8 safeguards the enjoyment of this unique combination of Californian environments forever. The agreement will also preserve habitat for threatened and endangered species on the Ranch, including California condor, San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin antelope squirrel, striped adobe lily, Bakersfield cactus, Valley elderberry longhorn beetle and Tehachapi slender salamander. Scientists who have worked on condor recovery for decades have reviewed the development and found it to be consistent with the bird’s recovery, particularly given the large scale of permanent habitat protection won through the agreement.
Photo courtesy Kent Schwitkis
Sycamore trees at Tehachapi Creek. The proposed state park will include this valley.
The agreement marks the culmination of 20 months of negotiations with the Tejon Ranch Company. “These were very difficult negotiations. An outstanding team of some of the state’s best land use, real estate and environmental law attorneys as well as locally knowledgeable scientists worked with the conservation organizations to achieve this agreement,” says Dodson.
The landmark achievement of these negotiations is Tejon Ranch Company’s agreement to maintain the ecological integrity of ninety percent of the Ranch almost entirely as one contiguous habitat. The preserved lands will comprise 240,000 acres –equivalent to the area seven times the size of San Francisco—of conservation easements in donated and purchased areas. These conservation easements have removed forever the possibility of development on those lands.
There are two different parts to the easements involved in this agreement. First, the Ranch will dedicate without cost 178,000 acres for conservation easement.
In addition, through the state bond fund, and based on a fair market price determined by state appraisal, conservation easements will be purchased for five potential development areas on the ranch totaling 62,000 acres. From the governor down, state officials have assured the Sierra Club and its partners that the purchase of easements on Tejon Ranch will be a top priority.
Eventually, when the state budget allows, approximately 50,000 acres of the conserved lands will be acquired in fee by the state.
The agreement establishes a conservancy with a board of 12 directors (Four of the directors will be members of the environmental groups party to the agreement; four will be from the Ranch. These eight will choose the remaining four.) The conservancy will own the easements, enabling it to manage, restore, and enhance native diversity on the land that’s protected through the conservation easements.
In exchange, Sierra Club, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, (NRDC), Audubon California, the Planning and Conservation League, and the Endangered Habitats League agree not to oppose the proposed developments on the remaining ten percent of the Ranch. “Not opposing the developments was a very difficult decision for the Club. It was agreed to in this specific instance because of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect 90% of the Ranch,” says Corcoran.
Preserving Public Access
Photo courtesy Joan Schipper
The conservancy will ensure the public’s enjoyment of the Ranch. Plans for public access to the Ranch include a new, 49,000-acre state park and realignment of the Pacific Coast Trail through the heart of the Ranch. The new conservancy will offer managed public access throughout the conserved areas of the Ranch.
Preserving Condor Habitat
Photo courtesy Don Henderson
The California Condor, one of Tejon Ranch's more famous residents.
According to Graham Chisolm of Audubon California, the agreement, “included some pullbacks in development on some important foraging ridges” for condors. At the press conference, Chisolm also noted that “during the course of negotiations, we had the opportunities to engage with and work closely with a number of condor experts,” which “really allayed our concerns about the impact that the projects here on the Ranch would have for the California condor.”
Benefits of the Negotiated Outcome
Photo courtesy Bill Corcoran
Tejon Ranch in winter.
There are several reasons why Sierra Club activists pursued a negotiated settlement. Given that Tejon Ranch is already divided into over one thousand legal parcels, there was nothing to stop the publicly traded corporation from selling off parts of the Ranch to developers. Had that happened, it would have been virtually impossible to arrive at the outstanding conservation outcome of this agreement. The limited availability of state and federal funding for a full acquisition of the Ranch coupled with an unwilling seller would have made it very difficult to acquire the entire ranch outright. Finally, tens of thousands of acres of the ranch that are protected under the agreement are readily developable and fighting developments one at a time likely would have resulted in more development across the Ranch.
Agreement Heralded as a Victory by Club Leadership
Photo courtesy Jeff Gantman
Chapter Chair Mike Sappingfield and Senior Chapter Director Ron Silverman at the May 8 press conference announcing the agreement.
Sierra Club elected officials voice their support for the agreement. Kate Allen, Chair of the Antelope Valley Group, says, “I voted in favor of it. They [those involved in the negotiation] worked very hard, and the Antelope Valley Group supports the agreement. It’s a great achievement, saving all that land.” Kent Schwitkis, Chair of the Outings Management Committee commented on the public access the agreement calls for, saying, “I heartily support this agreement, which will one day enable our membership to visit and explore this too little known place.” Asked for his reaction to the agreement, Gordon Nipp, Vice Chair of the Kern-Kaweah Chapter, added, “A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have thought anything like this was possible. We’re talking about preserving 240,000 acres of incredibly important land, incredibly beautiful land, and that’s where the focus should be.”
Jennifer Robinson contributed to the reporting of this story.