OCTA Reaches Major Milestone in Preserving O.C. Wilderness

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OCTA Reaches Major Milestone in Preserving O.C. Wilderness

EIR and conservation plan OK’d for seven properties that help offset impacts of 13 freeway projects

ORANGE – The Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors on Monday unanimously approved a conservation plan that ensures more than 1,300 acres of wilderness will remain preserved and forever protected from development.

The approval of the environmental documents related to the Measure M Freeway Environmental Mitigation Program marks a major milestone in efforts to protect natural habitat and rare animal and plant species in Orange County.

The certification of the final conservation plans, known as the Natural Community Conservation Plan/Habitat Conservation Plan and the associated Environmental Impact Report, is the culmination of a nearly 10-year effort that involved OCTA staff working closely with members of the public, environmental and community groups, and state and federal wildlife officials.

“Today is a landmark day for Orange County that demonstrates we can move forward on improving our freeways and transportation system while at the same time protecting the environment that makes our county such a special place to live,” said OCTA Chair Lori Donchak.

OCTA’s freeway environmental mitigation program allocates funds from Measure M, the county’s half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, to acquire land and fund habitat restoration projects in exchange for streamlined approvals for 13 freeway improvement projects throughout Orange County.

The program is a comprehensive effort to offset the environmental impacts of the freeway construction projects in Measure M by preserving large swaths of valuable habitat, to protect the plant species and rare animals that live on the land and provide connectivity to other natural lands.

So far, OCTA has acquired seven parcels of natural land in Trabuco Canyon, Silverado Canyon, Brea and Laguna Beach from willing sellers for the purpose of preserving it.

Approximately $10 million in funding also has been made available for 11 habitat restoration projects, totaling nearly 400 acres.

Overall, approximately $280 million is expected to be made available for environmental conservation projects over a 30-year period. Another component of OCTA’s environmental program provides funding to cities for projects that help protect water quality in Orange County.

OCTA’s environmental efforts have been guided, in part, by the participation of the Environmental Oversight Committee, consisting of a dozen public members who make recommendations to the board of directors. Final approvals of the environmental documents came in cooperation with officials from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“This is an important effort to protect our environment that would not have been possible without the leadership of the OCTA board and the strong involvement of environmental and community groups,” said state Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, who previously served as an OCTA board member and led the Environmental Oversight Committee. “I think that OCTA has created an ideal model for the mitigation of transportation projects that can be followed statewide.”

With the final environmental approvals in place, OCTA staff will continue to work toward completing Resource Management Plans for each of the preserves, which also will outline potential public access to the properties that is safe and compatible with the biological goals.

Those individual plans for each preserve are expected to be completed in 2017 and 2018. In the meantime, OCTA continues to host periodic hikes and equestrian rides on certain properties.

The OCTA board earlier this year initiated an endowment fund that will ensure the long-term management and maintenance of the preserves to protect their valuable biological resources.

OCTA staff will continue to work toward designating appropriate long-term managers for the preserves while identifying and funding new restoration projects.

For more information on OCTA’s environmental program, visit octa.net/environmental.

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