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The Last Frontier
How efforts to build the largest master-planned community in California – 23,000 homes and a resort along the Grapevine – have subdivided environmental groups
Broad pastures, granite-studded hillsides, and icy blue mountain lakes all lie within an hour’s drive of L.A. smog and concrete, hidden in plain sight as traffic snakes by on the one major freeway through the Tehachapi Mountains. Ancient oak groves offer cool shade; thick stands of piñon pines beckon in the breeze; forests of twisted Joshua trees grope toward the clouds.
The landscape has barely changed for thousands of years, which is why more than 80 rare or endangered species continue to prey, roam, roost, flower, and rear their young here. The nearly extinct California condor comes to forage in small numbers where long ago colonies nested in this last Southern California wilderness, this blank spot on the map 18 times the size of Manhattan. There is no other place like it in California and few to rival it on earth. To stand on a windswept hill at Tejon Ranch is to be at once humbled, enthralled, and saddened by vistas that in years past defined California and the West by their plenty rather than their dearth. The United Nations has recognized the region encompassing much of the ranch as one of 25 irreplaceable hot spots of biodiversity in the world—a designation reserved for just 2.4 percent of the earth’s surface.
The ranch’s owners want to build a city there. Called Centennial, it would have 23,000 homes and at least 64,000 residents. They also plan to create a resort and shopping malls, along with industrial parks, cargo terminals, and a system for delivering water no one in this drought-ridden state can spare. Where cattle grazing and hunting have been the main activities for the last 150 years, the Tejon Ranch Company and its investors want to construct the largest master-planned community California has ever seen. This is the rough equivalent of dropping a Boulder, Colorado, into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or a couple iterations of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, down into Yosemite.
After years of preliminaries, an initial environmental impact statement and a habitat conservation plan—federally mandated studies that must be hashed out before a patch of grass can be disturbed—were released for public comment in January. The documents were pushed out the door three days after Barack Obama took office and before new administration appointments had been made, despite the new president’s memorandum to delay all environmental reports so they could be reevaluated.
Normally this would have created an uproar among California environmental organizations. Instead there has been silence. That’s because a number of the biggest environmental players in the state—Audubon California, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council among them—that once opposed the project as an ecological disaster are now working with the Tejon Ranch Company. Facing the likelihood of years of litigation, the owners of the Tejon Ranch last year agreed to something so extraordinary that it fractured the environmental opposition. They offered to dedicate up to 90 percent of the ranch land to conservation, giving environmental groups equal control of the property. In one stroke, the single largest development in state history would also become the single largest wilderness preservation project in the state.
“This is one of the great conservation achievements in California history,” said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the NRDC’s urban program, when the deal was announced. “This agreement is the Mount Everest of conservation.”
There was a catch, however. Those same environmental groups would have to drop public opposition to the resort, the city, the industrial parks, and all other development on the remaining 10 percent of the ranch, no matter what form it took. The greens would have to remain on the sidelines instead of digging into those recently released reports. Five of six environmental organizations that had been allied to fight the ranch development have removed themselves from contention by signing the conservation agreement.
It was a brilliant move by the Tejon Ranch Company, a publicly traded corporation with Wall Street money behind it—Third Avenue Management being the biggest investor, with nearly 30 percent of the company’s shares and a seat on the board. Sums as monumental as the landscape are at stake. The raw land alone was reportedly valued at $1.5 billion in 1999, and if developed as envisioned, the ranch would be worth up to 30 times that amount, perhaps much more when all is said and done. More than 37,000 jobs could be added to a struggling local economy. Completing the project would demand, on average, the construction of a new house every eight hours, 365 days a year, for 20 years.
To those who see progress in a bulldozer’s blade and beauty in the taming of nature, Tejon Ranch is an irresistible plum: 270,000 contiguous acres lying 60 miles from downtown Los Angeles, a straight shot up Interstate 5—the Golden State Freeway transformed into the ultimate driveway to the ultimate bedroom community. The New York Times admiringly described the plan as “Playing SimCity for Real.” The investors know the economic downturn won’t last forever, and they want their plans and permits ready to roll as soon as the market picks up. Sacrificing up to 90 percent of the ranch—more than half of which was too rugged or remote to ever be developed—just may be the quickest way to make that city a reality.
Standing in the path of this future Tejon Ranch is a relatively little-known environmental group with a small budget and outsize ambitions, the Center for Biological Diversity, whose representatives have called the agreement “a classic greenwash.” This is the sixth group, the one that opted out of the negotiations with Tejon. “If we can’t save a pristine piece of wilderness that the United Nations considers to be one of the 25 most biologically important on earth,” says Peter Galvin, the group’s 44-year-old cofounder and conservation director, “what can we save?”
On paper this scruffy outfit—a hodgepodge of 62 lawyers, biologists, activists, and ordinary folks—shouldn’t have a prayer against the political, economic, and legal resources behind SimCity. With offices scattered around the country, the center is headquartered in Tucson in a cavernous, somewhat cluttered office in a former market, which the staff must vacate one month each year when the landlord puts on the city’s annual gem show. The space comes rent free and features a pair of rather dusty giant purple crystals that are too heavy to move. Compared with operations like the Sierra Club, the center’s $6.5 million budget is shoestring, but its biologists and attorneys are considered leaders in their fields, particularly in the areas of marine and climate environmental law.
During the past 20 years, the Center for Biological Diversity has won close to 90 percent of its 500 cases. Though few outside the rarefied world of environmental litigation are familiar with the center, evidence of its work is ubiquitous. Almost every species that since 2001 had been grudgingly listed by the Bush administration as imperiled—a total of 63—has been protected because the center used the courts to force the issue on a recalcitrant White House. The group’s most recent and widely heralded victory came when it compelled the Bush administration to grant the polar bear endangered species protections and to specify global warming as the extinction threat—a landmark finding.
Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, 70 percent of the plant and animal species given protection under the law have been listed because of efforts by the center. More than 100 million acres of wildlands have been preserved as habitats for these endangered species—an area more than twice the size of all the national parks in the contiguous 48 states combined. It is no exaggeration to say that the modern American environmental movement has been reinvented by the center, and especially by two of its founders and leaders: Peter Galvin, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owl expert, scientist, and self-described mystic who devises intricately ruthless environmental campaigns; and Kierán Suckling, an engineering student turned philosopher who combines an encyclopedic knowledge of animal species with a political-opposition researcher’s instinct for the other side’s jugular. “Boxing’s not about hitting hard,” Suckling likes to say, explaining the center’s technique of burying officials with flurries of lawsuits, investigations, petitions, and press releases. “It’s about jabbing the other guy over and over and over, before he has a chance to recover.” Their aggressive use of science and lawsuits to compel compliance with the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws has defeated off-roaders and offshore oil drillers, developers and Detroit automakers, adversaries, and an alphabet soup of government agencies from Washington State to Washington, D.C., and as far away as Okinawa.
The center’s work has transformed overgrazed, trampled, and befouled federal lands that had been all but left for dead into lush riparian forests. Thousands of miles of ocean waters nearly stripped of life have been made off-limits to dragnets, bringing endangered sea turtles and depleted fisheries back from the brink of extinction. One court case pursued by the center halted logging not in a single habitat, not in a single forest, but in every national forest in the Southwest—all 11 of them—after it was shown that the feds were routinely breaking the law by giving loggers carte blanche to cut down ancient trees on ecologically sensitive public lands. Its latest target is the most threatening source of environmental damage, extinctions, and habitat loss yet—global warming—and Tejon Ranch is ground zero.
The organization’s goal is to augment its usual battle over specific endangered species issues—in Tejon’s case, the California condor—with a broader campaign to show that projects such as Tejon are precisely the sort of development, built far from existing cities and requiring residents to “leapfrog” through the outlying area to get to work, that must stop if we are to get serious about slowing climate change. It argues that state and federal laws should force developers at Tejon—and elsewhere—to quantify their contribution to global warming and then do everything feasible to eliminate that impact, from installing solar roofs to mandating zero-emission vehicles for residents. If the developers refuse such mitigation, then the project should be scuttled, argues Kassie Siegel, the intense young attorney who runs the center’s new Climate Law Institute (and who dons her “Frostpaw the Polar Bear” suit for the occasional protest).
Fighting leapfrog development has become a priority for the center. Although California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has led the nation in adopting global warming legislation, a much older state law on the books, dating back to 1970 and signed by Governor Ronald Reagan, is the center’s weapon of choice against greenhouse gas emissions and the urban sprawl that helps generate them. The law, called the California Environmental Quality Act, featured the deceptively simple but sweeping requirement that local and state governments must examine and reduce or eliminate the negative environmental impacts of development projects—from new cities to new shopping malls—before approving them. The goal was to address traditional water and air pollution—the poisoning of rivers and the smokestack smog and soot that were the bane of the 1970s. Global warming was not on anyone’s radar then and is not mentioned in the act, but the language was designed to embrace new environmental threats as they emerged. Still, no one ever thought to apply the act to the greenhouse gas emissions of development projects until the center tried to in 2006.
The Black Bench strategy was so successful that Attorney General Jerry Brown filed a similar suit against the fast-growing county of San Bernardino, forcing a settlement specifying that it must consider greenhouse gas emissions in every future construction project. Under threat of suits from the center and the state, most major jurisdictions in California are now doing the same—a sea change in how developers in California are required to handle the threat of global warming. Stopping a 1,400-home project like Black Bench will have no measurable effect on global warming, Siegel says, but how about ten projects? Or a hundred? No one project will make or break climate change, just as no one electric, hybrid, or hydrogen car will. It is the cumulative effect of millions of clean cars—or millions of houses—that can alter the path of global warming.
“We have to start somewhere” is Siegel’s mantra. “Tejon Ranch is iconic. It is exactly the sort of project that has contributed to our climate crisis in the first place. The conservation agreement, whatever its merits, doesn’t change that. All those houses, all those commutes, all those emissions, are still on the drawing board. There’s no good reason to put a new city there.”
Tejón is Spanish for “badger,” a creature once plentiful near the ranch. Legend holds that Spanish soldiers exploring the area found a dead badger at the mouth of a canyon, and the name stuck. The land had long been coveted for its fertility, beauty, and strategic location. It was occupied by the Yokuts and several other Native American nations, was claimed by Mexico in the 19th century and carved up into four land-grant ranchos, then became U.S. terrain after the Mexican-American War and California’s admission to the Union.
Fort Tejon was established in 1854 at the urging of a storied California military man, explorer, road builder, and land baron, Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Among many firsts, he surveyed for the transcontinental railroad, brought news to Washington that gold had been discovered in California, and started an experimental U.S. Army Camel Corps at Fort Tejon, importing 25 of the desert animals from Egypt and Tunisia. As head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (he was also lead Indian negotiator and surveyor general of California and Nevada), Beale helped manage reservation land for local tribes. He also snapped up the four ranchos to form the present-day boundaries of Tejon Ranch.
The Beale family kept the ranch for 57 years, then sold it for $3 million in 1912 to a consortium of investors led by Harry Chandler, who later became publisher of the Los Angeles Times. The Chandler family’s Times Mirror Company converted the Tejon Ranch into a publicly traded corporation. In the 1970s, it was listed on the American Stock Exchange, where its stock prices soared to more than $600 a share in the mid- 1980s as interest intensified in the company’s plans for massive development. Drought, a bad economy, and a real estate downturn stymied those plans, causing the stock to tank. In the early 1990s, the ranch owners positioned themselves as stewards of the land. Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society had frequent access to the ranch for research and wildlife management as part of the California Condor Recovery Program, one of the most ambitious and successful projects ever attempted for staving off a species’ extinction. The last 22 condors in the wild were captured in 1987. Bred in captivity, their offspring were “re-wilded” beginning in 1991—an expensive and painstakingly slow process that is still going on.
As the condors began their comeback, the ranch management changed course yet again. In 1996, the current CEO, a San Diego developer named Bob Stine, took over, along with new board members who had similar real estate backgrounds and ambitions. Then Times Mirror sold its controlling interest, and Third Avenue Management entered the picture. Planning to transform the ranch into a city and resort began. Cooperation with the condor recovery program was curtailed. Under the Endangered Species Act, portions of the property had been designated condor “critical habitat,” areas deemed vital to the species’ survival. The Tejon Ranch Company sued in 1997, demanding that the protections be lifted and that the condors be classified as “experimental nonessential,” a designation that would probably doom the species, according to Galvin. The company reached an agreement with the fish and wildlife service to put the lawsuit on hold while the ranch owners seek various permits for the project, including an “incidental take” permit that would give the ranch the authority to alter condor habitat and to “harass” and remove condors.
An estimated 20 additional species protected by state and federal laws live on the ranch, as do 60 rare types of plants and animals with no legal protections. A number of these organisms exist nowhere else in the world. One-third of the oak tree species in California can be found on Tejon. The biological abundance and diversity is the reason the area that Tejon Ranch falls within, the California Floristic Province, is considered by the United Nations to be a biological diversity hot spot. The ranch contains the last wildlife corridor that links the coastal, low desert, high desert, and mountain regions of the state, making Tejon unique and, from a conservationist’s viewpoint, vital. This is why the center opposed the development and withdrew from negotiations with the ranch, and it is also why the other environmental groups stayed in negotiations and ultimately cut a deal. Everyone’s priority was keeping the ranch in one piece and preserving that biological crossroads. The only question was, Which would best achieve that goal—years of litigation and confrontation or a compromise?
For those who own Tejon Ranch, the people who have invested in the vision of a new city and resort complex set amid windswept hills and oak groves, the issue is a simple question of property rights. They say they have bent over backward to set aside significant land for a nature preserve and open space. They have invited environmental groups to help oversee the conserved lands. What more must they do to satisfy the center? “The fundamental core values of the ranch from the get-go are conservation and good stewardship,” says Barry Zoeller, vice president of corporate communications for the ranch.
Much of the Tejon Ranch project is to be in semirural Kern County, where the county seat is the city of Bakersfield. Civic leaders there have complained that the Center for Biological Diversity is going too far and should not try to block jobs and revenue in the region. A columnist with The Bakersfield Californian, Marylee Shrider—in an article reprinted on the Tejon Company’s Web site—summed up these sentiments, deriding the center’s “saber rattling” and “unwarranted sense of entitlement” as environmental extremism. “They want, they want, they want…,” Shrider wrote of environmentalists. “Tejon Ranch Co. must develop, or not develop, the land according to their plan or it’s off to court they’ll go.”
Early on, and despite its reputation for being uncompromising, the center had participated in meetings with the Tejon Ranch Company, the Wildlands Conservancy, the Sierra Club, Audubon California, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Planning and Conservation League, the Endangered Habitats League, and others. At the time, the Tejon Ranch Company had offered to place 100,000 acres of the 270,000-acre ranch in a conservation trust in order to blunt environmental groups’ opposition, but Galvin pronounced that insufficient. Much of the offered acreage was remote, rocky, or high ground, with little value for conservation and unusable for development, he said. From his perspective, the ranch was giving up nothing, and the coalition of environmental groups agreed to present Tejon Ranch with a counterproposal.
After months of back-and-forth, the factions had gathered in the back room of Il Fornaio restaurant in Pasadena. On one side of the big table sat ranch executives with their corporate allies and attorneys. Across the water glasses and baskets of bread sat the loose-knit group of environmentalists, many of whom seemed content, as Galvin recalls it, to let him play the “bad cop” in this drama. When it was his turn to make his pitch, Galvin said he believed that the best possible outcome would be to drop all development plans and create a permanent wildlife preserve and public park. Tejon Ranch Company would go down in history alongside the Rockefellers and Carnegies for its environmental generosity and commitment, he said. Generations would take joy in this beautiful wilderness and honor the decision. And of course, there were tax benefits.
Everyone in the room knew that this idea was not going to fly. Merely selling mansions in the ten canyons where the condors once nested would bring in a profit of at least $350 million, and that would be just a tiny piece of a very big product. The investors in New York had not bought Tejon Ranch in order to play philanthropist.
Then came the backup plan developed by the group, which Galvin had reluctantly embraced: Go ahead, build on 30,000 acres—the whole Centennial project. Just move it to a less sensitive area, away from the grasslands slated to be bulldozed. They had a site mapped out near the edge of the ranch that could actually increase the profit potential because it would be less remote and easier to build on. In exchange the ranch would have to cancel the resort complex and canyon mansions near the condor areas, the most important habitat on the ranch. The investors could still make a mint, and nature would fare far better. Here was the kicker: The amount of permanently preserved land had to be much more than the 100,000 acres already offered. It had to be 245,000 acres—about 90 percent of the entire property, the minimum needed to keep the various habitats and wildlife corridors intact. “Nothing short of that will be acceptable,” insisted Galvin, adding that the alternative would be spending the next 15 years or more in litigation.
The offer was rejected, as Galvin had expected. Not long after, the center stopped participating in the meetings and negotiations, all of which had been subject to a confidentiality agreement at the Tejon Ranch representatives’ insistence. The discussions continued between the ranch and a core group of five environmental organizations. What Galvin didn’t expect was the deal that the NRDC, the Sierra Club, Audubon, and the others struck with the ranch owners in May 2008, when they made the extraordinary promise not to oppose any of the developments—before detailed plans had been drawn up. In return, Tejon Ranch agreed to the most dramatic part of Galvin’s proposal, setting aside up to 90 percent of the land for conservation as he had suggested. The land would be placed in a conservation easement, to be administered by a nonprofit run by a 12-person board—four environmental representatives, four ranch representatives, four independents—and initially funded by the ranch.
This is where the center parted company for good with its former allies. The Sierra Club, the NRDC, and the other groups have focused on what would be saved, its epic size and scope, on the notion that the deal serves the greater good. The center activists and attorneys argue that it is a grave mistake—as well as a sign of weakness and fear—to surrender the right to object to a development with such enormous potential to harm species and landscapes. No matter how much land is saved, Galvin maintains, it cannot make up for establishing Centennial in what is now grasslands and putting a resort in critical lakeside condor habitat. The endangered birds and other species will inevitably suffer, perhaps catastrophically, he argues, and the state will lose credibility as a champion of “smart growth” and a foe of climate-damaging, resource-hogging sprawl.
Joel Reynolds of the NRDC concedes this compromise leaves the development plans mostly unchanged, except for pulling back a bit from some of the ridges where the condors forage—a change that federal wildlife biologists would have almost certainly required anyway. The conserved land would remain open to current uses: grazing, hunting, agriculture, mining. The agreement would allow about a quarter of the land proposed for conservation to be developed, too, if the environmental groups failed to raise millions of dollars to buy the land at market rate by May 2011. According to Reynolds, most of those 62,000 acres would have to be bought with state bond money for conversion to a state park, but at the moment such a purchase by the cash-strapped state is out of the question, given the reality of budget shortfalls and a moratorium on bond issues. The land has yet to be appraised.
A media event was held at the ranch in May 2008, featuring Governor Schwarzenegger and one environmental leader after another praising the deal. Reynolds described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime achievement.” Bill Corcoran of the Sierra Club called it the “ecological equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase.” The Los Angeles Times proclaimed that it “ends years of debate over the fate of an untrammeled tableau of mountains, wildflower fields, twisted oaks and Joshua trees.”
Missing from the praise of the plan was that 23,000 homes as well as hotels, condos, golf courses, and an industrial center were going to be plopped down in the midst of the preserves. Absent also were the Sierra Club activists who lived near the area slated for development and who adamantly opposed it. They resigned from leadership in the local Sierra Club group so they could continue to voice opposition to the development. “We did not support the deal,” says one of the resigning board members, Jan de Leeuw, chair of UCLA’s department of statistics and a resident of Cuddy Valley, near Tejon Ranch. He was more pointed on his Not in My Back Yard blog about development in the Grapevine region, writing “first we destroyed the Indians, then we co-opted the environmentalists, now it’s time to get rid of the California condor.”
Graham Chisholm, Audubon California’s executive director and board chairman of the new Tejon Ranch Conservancy, seems perplexed by such criticism. He says the stakes were too high to take the purist position and oppose all development, fighting it out in court. “Then we risk gambling with one of the most important biological properties in the United States. Even if you could block their plans, project by project, there are a thousand individual parcels on that ranch. They could sell those off one by one, and you would lose the ability to try and manage a big landscape…. This way, we get 90 percent in the conservation column…. From my perspective, it was a huge environmental win.”
Reynolds says he understands why some environmentalists are critical of the “difficult judgment call” behind the agreement with Tejon Ranch. He has been involved in court battles over environmental issues for 29 years, he explains, and has no reluctance to fight. But the NRDC concluded that Tejon demanded a different approach and that the unyielding stance favored by the Center for Biological Diversity would do more harm than good. “We thought long and hard about what we’re getting and what we’re giving up,” he says. “My judgment: What we achieved here, we couldn’t have gotten with a lawsuit. We couldn’t have gotten with ten lawsuits. Almost a quarter of a million acres of contiguous land at the heart of four important ecosystems in California. What we had to give up is our ability to challenge whatever development the ranch ultimately proposes…. But our agreement does not restrict the rights of anyone else to intervene. That was very important to us.” He and Chisholm stress that none of the groups is expressing approval of the development plans. They simply aren’t commenting on them.
“In other words,” says Galvin, “they want us to do the dirty work…. This agreement is going to make it harder for us to win. But that doesn’t mean we won’t win.”
Third Avenue Management, a specialist in distressed properties (it recently acquired a $20 million share of LandSource Communities Development, the bankrupt owner of 15,000 acres in Newhall and Valencia), certainly sees the conservation agreement as a good investment. Michael Winer, a Third Avenue portfolio manager and Tejon board member, wrote in a quarterly letter to shareholders that the deal allows the company to avoid 50 years of litigation and to pack more development onto the ranch than it could ever have achieved had the environmental groups refused to bargain. “Such protracted litigation,” he added, “would obviously have a devastating impact on the value of Tejon Ranch common stock.”
With the January release of drafts of the Tejon Ranch environmental impact study and the habitat conservation plan, the project has entered a new phase. The documents make clear that the ranch intends to use the conservation agreement as mitigation for the development—meaning that the work with organizations to conserve parts of the ranch is being held out as a means of making up for any harm to species or the ecosystem.
Environment Now publishes an annual tally of top ecological achievements in Southern California (two of this year’s winning efforts were the successful opposition to a toll road through San Onofre State Beach and the passage of Measure R in Los Angeles to fund transit). The Santa Monica-based organization placed the Tejon conservation agreement in its “environmental setbacks and failures” category, calling it “the epitome of poor planning.”
“I think those groups [working with Tejon Ranch] vastly underestimated the impact of their participation in that agreement,” says Adam Keats, the Center for Biological Diversity’s urban wildlands director. “This agreement is being used to justify development, even in the condor’s critical habitat.” Keats has been studying the 18 pounds of documents produced by the ranch and released by the government, but he has been thwarted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to relinquish supporting records. One concern he has raised is failure to provide for the recovery of the condor, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The plan calls instead for a 50-year program involving a man-made feeding zone to draw condors away from the new developments. But Keats argues this isn’t the same as allowing a wild species to recover. “It’s dooming the condors to be a zoo species for the rest of its existence. That is not acceptable.”
The uncertain economy and housing market woes will likely hold off the bulldozers for now, but activists fear that government agencies, particularly at the county level, may be more inclined than ever to issue permits in hope of providing an economic stimulus. The Tejon Ranch Conservancy, meanwhile, is moving ahead with pilot programs for public access and docent tours of a property that has always been closed to the public. University of California scientists are negotiating to set up a nature reserve on the land, and plans are under way for a state park, even though, as yet, there is no money in sight to buy the land from the Tejon Ranch Company. Reynolds says the company has indicated it will extend the purchase deadline if necessary. Whether that is out of altruism or a desire to keep its development plans on track doesn’t matter, Reynolds notes. The effect is the same: Important wilderness will be preserved.
For the Center for Biological Diversity, the stakes are just as high. If it can alter the course of the Tejon development, if the construction can be stopped or molded into something environmentally sound, if consideration of extinction and global warming can be made to trump money and sprawl here, on California’s last frontier, then Galvin sees Tejon Ranch as the start of something big, something nationwide, a seismic shift. It will mean the United States is no longer stuck on the old questions of how and why we should take action against global warming and extinction. We will have moved on to the questions of how much and how fast we should act.
Photographs by Macduff Everton