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California’s largest urban area state park is set to become even bigger.
Two parcels of coveted, biologically diverse and fire-prone land adjacent to Chino Hills State Park were funded for acquisition in May, with the 80-acre parcel closing escrow June 28.
The money came from California’s Wildlife Conservation Board, which provided around $3 million from a fund designated to conserve deer and mountain lion habitats.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a regional public land agency, agreed to temporarily manage the two properties until they’re added to Chino Hills State Park.
The 400-acre ridgeline property purchase helps prevent housing developments from interrupting views and expands wildlife habitat, said Melanie Schlotterbeck of Hills for Everyone, a nonprofit working on the acquisitions.
Following the state’s executive order to conserve 30% of its land and coastal waters by 2030, this acquisition advances a statewide, and to some extent countywide, movement in preserving open space.
In June, the state granted $8 million toward the purchase of nearly 400 acres of wetlands and coastal bluffs — known as Banning Ranch — to create a public park.
Just a month earlier, Newport Beach residents stopped a near-deal between the County of Orange and a wealthy political donor to buy a piece of Back Bay parkland for just $13,000.
For more than four decades, conservationists, residents and officials have worked to establish, preserve and expand the more than 14,000 acres of land which straddles Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange and Riverside counties, known as Chino Hills State Park.
“Our residents greatly value the open space that it provides and the opportunity to enjoy nature in the middle of a heavily populated area,” said Mayor of Chino Hills Brian Johsz.
Though the state park was established in the 1980s, there’s persistent interest in expanding and preserving open space along the 31-mile Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor.
“We learned during the pandemic how important open space is to our mental and physical health. SoCal needs to continue to grow its open space preserve including the Puente Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor,” said Brea councilmember Glenn Parker in an email.
The parcels of land being purchased are also crucial for preserving the views visible inside and outside the park, because they are on the ridgeline. Preserving the land from housing or other developments helps keep the feeling of being in open nature that Parker describes as being “transported back in time” to an untouched Southern California.
The properties of gently rolling grasslands, slopes dotted with trees, coastal sage scrub and other rare habitats are vital for native wildlife, said Schlotterbeck.
The park houses more than 200 species of birds and mammals and thousands of types of insects and other invertebrates. This includes deer, coyote, bobcats, the protected Southern California mountain lion and the endangered California Gnatcatcher, according to the Chino Hills State Park brochure.
As chunks of natural habitat become developed or sectioned off, it makes it more difficult for ecosystems to thrive. By reconnecting similar and diverse habitats along the Puente- Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor animals can mate, forage, migrate, nest and escape catastrophes more easily.
These purchases extend the park toward the Prado Wetlands which gives animals a better chance in escaping fires in the hills, Schlotterbeck said.
Last October, the Blue Ridge Fire, which was said to be the result of a house fire, burned more than half Chino Hills State Park.
Housing development and roadways in this fire-prone area increases the likelihood of human-caused fires starting, according to Schlotterbeck.
“Hillside land is vulnerable to fires and not a good place to put houses. They themselves become fuel in a wildfire and there are many evacuation challenges that ensue,” Parker said.
While not all believe development is to blame, fire prevention in the area remains ever-important. Chino Hills’ fourth fire station is slated to be built in an area that burned last year, said Johsz.
Looking to the future, Hills for Everyone is working toward adding these properties into state ownership, as was identified in the Park’s General Plan from 1999.
With the needed funding and willing sellers, the ultimate goal is to expand the park by 1,500 acres, said Schlotterbeck.
According to Parker, the ideal outcome would be a continuous open space corridor from the San Gabriel River to the Cleveland National Forest.
“It has been a long struggle for southern California to be recognized as worthy of protection,” said Parker. “We are excited whenever additional open space is preserved, and will continue this effort for the benefit of future generations.”