Can the Last Wild Places Be Saved?

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

No one doubts that the car is king in America, and nowhere is it more greatly glorified than in southern California. There the ugly sibling of the car, unfettered urban and suburban sprawl-also held in high regard-grows cancerously into the fragile open spaces of valley and hill throughout the region. The octopus offspring of this tragic pairing is a network of nature-eating, inefficient freeways and toll roads still being proposed and built, flying in the face of common sense and good planning.

Many onerous proposals in southern California-development in the Ballona and Bolsa Chica wetlands, luxury homes and golf courses on the Palos Verdes Peninsula coast, resorts and more fancy homes at Dana Point-eat away at the remaining wild and scenic land, generating more population, cars and roads. One of the more incredibly stupid and destructive proposals now under consideration calls for a 1 6-mile toll road through the last wild land in southern Orange County. The Transportation Corridor Agency, already responsible for a toll road slicing the Laguna Hills open space into fragments, says it is needed to relieve traffic on the 8-lane San Diego Freeway. They warn of gridlock by the addition of 575,000 new residents by 2020, increasing traffic by 64%. The proposed route crosses a relatively wild 90-square-mile basin. It would devastate woodlands, creeks, rocky hills, and the habitat of thousands of animals, including seven endangered species.As the proposed route approaches the coast, it crosses lengthwise through 3/26-acre San Onofre State Park and along San Mateo Creek, the last totally wild creek in southern California. It would connect to the San Diego Freeway at the mouth of San Mateo Creek near the famous “Trestles” surfing spot.

Citizens concerned about the destructiveness of the proposal are fighting back. Friends of the Foothills, with $50,000 in seed money from the Sierra Club, formed a coalition of 11 activist groups to counter the public relations campaign being waged by the Transportation Agency. Environmentalists make several compelling arguments including the reality that more roads do not relieve gridlock for long without growth controls. If the freeway goes in, it opens the door to mammoth development in the area, defeating the traffic relief with more cars. Endangered species play a major role in the fate of the project. The San Mateo Creek watershed hosts the endangered tidewater gobi, southwestern arroyo toad, southwestern flycatcher and least Bell’s vireo. The developers’ own report suggests that the habitat for these species would be radically altered or destroyed, while at the same time claiming that mitigation would relieve some of the impacts.

A recent discovery threatens the future of the toll road. The native steelhead trout was thought to have been totally eradicated south of Malibu Creek in the Santa Monica Mountains 76 miles north until a student fishing in San Mateo Creek caught a fish looking suspiciously like a steelhead. Conclusive genetic evidence identified the small population as steelhead. The National Marine Fisheries Service, charged with protecting critical habitat including that for steelhead, could include San Mateo Creek in special management requirements.

The battle for nature is far from over. Toll road officials, veterans of two other projects through wild areas in Orange County, have overpowered all resistance and obstacles to building toll roads before. If they win, expect the road to be completed by 2003, opening up 35,000 acres for development. If they lose, chances are that large portions of the region can be placed in wildlife reserves, keeping a few wild places for the health of Orange County and the planet.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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