Near Irvine’s Great Park lies a 900-acre parcel of land, rich in wildlife, owned by the federal government and promised by them in 1996 to be critical, protected habitat.

It is part of a unique contract among the federal and state governments, Orange County, The Irvine Company and other landowners and stakeholders to protect open space in a large reserve in exchange for development permits elsewhere. By signing the contract in 1996, the U.S. formally re-purposed the land from its former military uses to habitat conservation.

Local planners and decision makers took the federal government at its word.

All regional plans since 1996 assume that this parcel would continue as open space and wildlife habitat. With the Marines gone and an airport proposal defeated, the surrounding area became suited to residential development. There were no more extensive “no-build” zones around the former base — no more noisy and dangerous aircraft and military activities.

New homes were planned and approved on both sides of the 900 acres, and new roads were built. Already more than 10,000 people live nearby, with up to 20,000 more to come as nearby developments — Portola Springs, Shea Baker Ranch and Great Park Neighborhoods — are built out in Irvine and Lake Forest.

Then in 2004 the FBI asked to use an existing pistol range on 10 acres of the habitat reserve. The owner at the time, the Federal Aviation Administration, consented. The General Services Administration, however, imposed strict conditions limiting the FBI’s activities to those compatible with the nature reserve, but conditions on the property began to change.

When the FBI moved in, they quickly installed new locks on the main gate, cut other locks off and challenged licensed users, thus ignoring written conditions that they share most of the area. Internet aerial maps show the FBI rebuilt old buildings, erected new ones, put in paved parking lots and two or three new shooting ranges, among other activities. None of these actions is permitted on reserve land.

Known as the “panhandle” of the former El Toro Marine Corp air station, the 900-acre parcel is also the only place a long-planned and essential wildlife corridor can connect 20,000 acres of coastal wilderness parks and preserves to Limestone Canyon and the larger Cleveland National Forest. Two segments of the corridor have already been completed.

The parcel contains the highest density of “threatened” coastal California gnatcatchers in Orange County and was considered a candidate for a national wildlife refuge.

The federal government is now in the awkward position of forcing private and other public landowners to protect endangered species while exempting itself from the requirement.

Much more than the 900 acres is at stake. A functioning wildlife corridor is essential to the continued health of what is currently a 20,000-acre “island” of coastal wilderness parks.

All animals need to find mates and unrelated mates will better sustain the population. Without a connection to other natural areas, their choices are limited, and wildlife may only be able to “date their cousins.” This leads to inbreeding, and in time, the weakened species will die out. Larger animals like foxes and bobcats need a lot of space to hunt, let alone find suitable mates. The diversity of the 20,000-acre coastal greenbelt is in jeopardy without this connection through central Orange County.

As local residents can attest, the FBI vision for the land is shooting down the 1996 contract.

Explosions and gunfire have emerged in place of the quiet open space that was promised. Recent FBI documents describe plans for a training facility in the middle of residential Orange County with multiple outdoor shooting ranges, explosions, helicopter landings and impregnable security fences that will block wildlife movement.

By converting what was promised to be a quiet natural area for wildlife into an activity-filled, noisy and dangerous landscape, FBI activities are already having an unwelcome impact on residents in nearby communities.

This is a stunning breach of the contract that the federal government made with Orange County, neighboring cities and area residents 16 years ago. None of this is allowed in reserve habitat land, and it is expressly prohibited in the 2004 agreement the FBI signed in order to use a single existing pistol range on 10 acres of the property.

In 2010, the FBI announced publicly that they wanted to take control of the entire property. This prompted the city of Irvine to attempt to negotiate a compromise to make FBI activities compatible with the habitat values on the property and allow the wildlife corridor to be completed.

The negotiations failed. The FBI would not negotiate until the agency was in complete control of the property.

In the spring of this year the FBI released its environmental assessment that essentially said, “Trust us.”

Environmental groups, neighboring Irvine, coastal cities and state and federal wildlife and parks agencies wrote strong comments that were ignored. Despite the sizable financial investment the county of Orange has already made in its segment of the corridor project, the county has remained surprisingly silent. Given the disruptive and frightening sounds the FBI facility has already brought to neighborhoods in the city of Lake Forest, their public silence is also perplexing.

Two weeks ago, the FBI took ownership and stewardship of the land. Its environmental assessment declares there are no impacts of the transfer of ownership. The document thus attempts to forgive the unpermitted building and ignore the 180-degree change of land use since 2004.

Now that the FBI is “custodian” of this fragile landscape, they must assume the burden of land management. They must fulfill the federal government’s promise to Orange County to protect this land, not degrade it. Otherwise, the FBI must move its operations to somewhere more suitable than in the middle of California’s most densely urbanized county.

Claire Schlotterbeck currently serves as executive director of Hills For Everyone and is leading the four-county cooperative effort to protect a backbone and backdrop of open space known as the Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor. Claire is also a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

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