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June 20, 2017 is a momentous day for both conservation groups and natural lands in Orange County. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), Caltrans, and state and federal wildlife agencies will sign a conservation plan permanently dedicating 1,300 acres of preserved land and nearly 400 acres of restored land as mitigation for 13 freeway projects.
This day is 12 years in the making, but thanks to Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP), the vision for getting it accomplished was in place long before.
In 2000, FHBP created the Green Vision Map which documented protected lands—and
more importantly—lands in need of protection. Dozens of conservation and community groups rallied around the Map as the way forward for conserving open space. All that was needed was funding to get the vision completed. Voter-approved park bond funds were nearly all spent and no regional funding was available because of the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy.
Charles Darwin put it best, when he said, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” With that theme in mind, FHBP began collaborating with OCTA for a pioneering environmental program to conserve lands through the half-cent sales tax measure called Measure M2. This partnership began in 2005 and devoted $243.5 million from the measure to mitigate impacts to habitat lands through acquisition and restoration, while simultaneously constructing freeway projects.
The environmental program bundled money already included in each freeway project budget and put it into a collective account for landscape-level conservation work. Historically transportation agencies lessened habitat impacts on a project-by-project basis. This comprehensive approach used science and mapping to determine the most important lands to protect. In fact, the Green Vision Map became the template for conservation opportunities. After landowners were contacted and opted into this willing-seller program, scientific evaluations of their lands occurred.
Because these lands needed to offset the impacts from the freeway projects, they had to be evaluated for the right types of plants and animals.
Other important factors like acreage, presence and absence of threatened or endangered species, and connectivity and adjacency to other open space areas were considered in the evaluation process. With all of these and other considerations, all potential acquisition or restoration projects were prioritized. The public was consistently invited to participate in this transparent and inclusive process.
Even before voters approved the sales tax in November 2006, FHBP has been the conservation community’s lead interface with OCTA for this innovative environmental program. When conservation dollars are stretched thin, creative solutions must be found. And, Measure M2’s funding came at the perfect time.
The first acquisition was completed in April 2011 and now OCTA holds seven properties in conservation ownership. Preserves span diverse locales: in Brea, Silverado and Trabuco Canyons, and Laguna Beach. In fact, all of the properties acquired to date were identified as opportunities on the Green Vision Map. Restoration projects are sited on a suite of public lands such as: Fairview Park, the Irvine Ranch lands, Chino Hills State Park, and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
Many lessons can be learned from a successful program like this. While the permitting and transportation agencies may have their own list of what made this program a resounding success, the conservation community lists perseverance, creating new agency allies, advocating for science, trusting in the process (even if it needs to unfold), focusing on where your alignments are, and moving forward cohesively, collaboratively, and efficiently.
We extend our utmost gratitude to the Orange County Transportation Authority and its many directors, committees, and staff for working with the conservation community to make this program a reality. We also thank Caltrans, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for advancing this pioneering conservation plan. And, of course to our allies in the conservation arena: the Green Vision and Measure M2 Coalitions for their continued tenacity and vision in helping make this environmental mitigation program and non-traditional partnership one that sets the model for other regions and infrastructure agencies to emulate.
Melanie Schlotterbeck is the Green Vision Coordinator for FHBP. In that position she manages multiple conservation coalitions and updates the Green Vision Map annually. She works closely with the Orange County Transportation Authority as the point person for the Measure M2 Coalition. For 10 years Melanie has served as the Vice Chair on the Environmental Oversight Committee which oversees this Environmental Mitigation Program.
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