By Janet Wilson
Hopes were rekindled in late July of permanently preserving 660 acres of open space known as the Mesa, owned by the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy, at the doorstep of the Cleveland National Forest. Community activists were cautiously optimistic that a torturous multi-year effort to purchase and save the lands could be completed, satisfying both Wildlands officials who say they need cash for operations elsewhere in California, and locals and recreational users who had long thought the lands were already preserved.

At press time, the parcels were back on the market for $3.7 to $4 million, including roughly 220 acres that had reportedly been in escrow. Wildlands staff told Silverado-Modjeska Recreation and Parks District (SMRPD) President Kevin Topp that they would welcome having the district manage the lands, and would offer them for sale at a discounted price of $1.5 to $2 million. It’s not the first time they’ve made such an offer, but area activists are hopeful that this time it will work.

A coalition of groups led by the Inter-Canyon League proposed, last month, that SMRPD manage the lands, making them available for its environment-focused children’s center and for recreation. ICL and other volunteers are pushing hard to raise funds.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) and the Irvine Ranch Water District were exploring purchasing the lands for mitigation to offset the loss of habitat and endangered species from construction. TCA officials, Topp and ICL directors were set to meet to discuss the road-building agency buying the lands for SMRPD and putting in permanent conservation easements, with continued access along a historic trail. But one resident below the Mesa said a Korean church was also interested in buying the land. 

A trails committee, led by Silverado resident Pam Ragland and represented by attorney Richard Pfeiffer, asserts that there are access easements on the trail cresting the lands. Pfeiffer has urged longtime users to continue asserting their rights to access. Wildlands denies those rights. Those and other legal tangles and federal and state environmental laws could make it tough for any applicant to process building approvals.

The renewed preservation efforts are the latest chapter in a bitter saga. In late June, Wildlands Acquisition Manager Dana Rochat wrote to the Sentry, and others, requesting meetings with community groups to correct what she described as “rumors and false information.”

In the letter, and at back-to-back meetings at the Modjeska Community Center, she and fellow staffers acknowledged the lands were donated in 2008 to create a preserve. They said they were stymied by lawsuits due to Williams Canyon neighbors who did not want to allow an entrance to a preserve.   

Rochat charged that previous sales efforts fell through because OC Parks and TCA would not allow them to manage their land the way they wished, wanted them to assume all legal liability, and gave them 15 minutes to sign an agreement. She said area residents were not in favor of OC Parks taking over the lands, and only wanted access for themselves. 

Those accounts are starkly at odds with emails and first-hand accounts that show comprehensive efforts by the Inter-Canyon League and other groups, Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer and TCA and OC Parks staff since 2015. The conservancy offered to sell the property to TCA, with OC Parks as land manager, in September 2015.  Spitzer and the rest of the road agency board voted in May 2016 to allocate $2 million for the purchase. But agency staff said Wildlands officials had already changed their minds, deciding they wanted to keep the land and manage it, which the agencies agreed to try. They said the 15-minute ultimatum came before the vote to award Wildlands $2 million, and after the nonprofit’s staff delayed providing necessary documentation for months.

ICL as well as the Conservation Fund tried to shepherd a successful contract across the finish line. Those efforts collapsed last summer. Wildlands then sold the Collar property on Silverado Canyon Road for $845,000. Along with the sale of the Big Oak Canyon property to a couple wanting to start an outdoor education school, it has earned nearly $1 million off the donated land.

Despite the decidedly different accounts, what was striking at the recent community meetings was the close alignment of the goals of the conservancy and area groups. Rochat, Wildlands’ Mission Advancement Manager Paul Melzer and Rregional Manager Zach Kantor-Anaya outlined how the land trust has preserved natural places across the state for the public, and educates young people about the outdoors. 

Similarly, the Silverado-Modjeska Parks District maintains trails across canyon open spaces and subsidizes and works tirelessly on a nature-focused children’s center. The Inter-Canyon League helps neighbors in times of need, and works to preserve the canyons rural way of life, along with Naturalist For You, the Canyon Land Conservation Fund and others. Ragland’s group is fighting curtailed access to many back-country trails, just as Wildlands has fought to maintain access to its lands.

Personally, it can be difficult not to feel that a gorgeous swath of Orange County is being sacrificed to support Wildlands’ bottom line. But I’m willing to try again. Perhaps a path unpaved with asphalt or acrimony can finally be found to protect the Mesa. 

Janet Wilson is vice president of the Inter-Canyon League.

A big mezza on the mesa