08 June 2015

Tonight's Talk on Chino Hills State Park

Presented by the Chino Hills Historical Society, tonight's PowerPoint-illustrated talk by Hills for Everyone executive director Claire Schlotterbeck about Chino Hills State Park provided an excellent overview.

The lecture covered the geologic forces that shaped the area; the fact that our Mediterranean climate has the greatest level of biodiversity of species in the world outside of rainforests; some of the animal and plant life (bobcats, roadrunners, owls, eagles, wildflowers of many kinds, etc.) found in the park; and its many uses (camping, hiking, biking, horse-riding, and so on).

Schlotterbeck paid tribute to David Meyers, formerly of La Habra and now living in Oak Glen near Yucaipa, who saw the growing development in the region in the 1970s and became a driving force in the movement to set aside land in the Chino Hills for park uses.

The intent initially was to create a regional park in each of the four counties (Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino) that intersect in the hills.  It became quickly apparent, however, that the best hope was with the California State Parks system, based on a suggestion from a volunteer who worked with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM.)  When it came to meeting a state parks criteria that a site having "outstanding natural, scenic and cultural values," the Chino Hills area fit the bill.

It also helped that nearly half of the state's population lived within an hour of the site and that it was near disadvantaged areas that could benefit from a natural resource like the park.  Moreover, saving representative areas of the state's diverse landscape was an essential element.  There was a bit of a handicap to overcome in that the majority of state parks are north of Fresno and resources, naturally, were directed more that way.

However, a 1977 feasibility study showed conclusively that the Chino Hills area was a great locale for a state park.  Three years later, Schlotterbeck, who had recently moved back to the area from out of state and who was raising twin girls, went to a meeting as a representative of her homeowner's association and volunteered to help the fledgling Hills for Everyone organization, little dreaming she'd run the institution and provide much impetus for preserving open space in the area.

In 1981, the first acquisition of land took place for the new facility and additional pieces were acquired through the Eighties and Nineties, so that, now, the park covers over 14,000 acres. The complexity and cost (some $200 million in total investment) were a record for a state park.  But, the initiative's success spurred on other preservation projects.

Schlotterbeck, however, pointed to a book called The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen and a point made about having as much of a large-scale preservation area to protect habitats for animals and plants from cougars and oaks on down to lizards and unusual indigenous flowers.  The vitality of an ecosystem, with all of its mutually dependent parts, is often lost on people, who tend to compartmentalize and isolate aspects that are naturally interconnected.

What this meant, then, was a larger concept involving the Puente-Chino Hills Wildlife Corridor, stretching from the Whittier Narrows on the west to the lands bordering the Cleveland National Forest, south of the 91 Freeway to the east and south.  Every incorporated city and unincorporated community bordering the corridor support the efforts to preserve the lands within it, with the notable exception of Diamond Bar.

Yet, some 4,000 acres in the Puente Hills at the west side of the corridor have been saved, as well as the amazing success story of land in Coal Canyon south of the 91 Freeway, where a former freeway underpass now serves as a critical access point for wildlife moving from Chino Hills to the Santa Ana Mountains and the Cleveland National Forest.  This property was fully entitled for 1,550 houses and commercial development, but its owner, Steve St. Clair, agreed to sell it for preservation, profiting far less than he would have if he'd developed the land.

Some 8,000 acres of the "missing middle" are comprised of 3,000 acres owned by Aera Energy, a Shell Oil subsidiary, on both sides of the 57 Freeway in unincorporated Orange County and in Diamond Bar and the 5,000 acre Tonner Canyon, including more than half of that within the Tres Hermanos Ranch, owned by the City of Industry since 1978, but now being marketed for sale.

Other Hills for Everyone projects touched upon include fire awareness through work with the Carbon Canyon Fire Safe Council and the HFE's own 100-year study showing the canyon's fire history and, where known, the points of origin (not surprisingly, along freeways and roadways).  Another has been the removal of the highly-invasive and flammable arundo donax, which has largely been cleared from Carbon Creek as one of the sole bright sides to the massive destruction of the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire, which burned 95% of the state park.

Notably, there was much discussion during the Q&A about Tres Hermanos and Tonner Canyon and what could be done to save this area.  Schlotterbeck noted that zoning in Diamond Bar (in which is 700 acres) and Chino Hills (where 1,800 acres are situated) allows for over 1,000 housing units.  The opportunity to use the referendum to prevent zoning changes to provide more density is key, she stated, noting that there were three key elements to preserving open space.

First, there has to be public engagement.  Second, it has to be a political priority.  Finally, there has to be staff agreement in the various governmental jurisdictions involved.  Of course, deep pockets to raise funds for fighting developers and acquiring land is another essential.

Schlotterbeck closed with a great summary, along the lines of the fact that parks honor the creator through creations, like the amazing diverse landscapes that form Chino Hills State Park and other preserved properties in the region.

The next presentation by the Chino Hills Historical Society is at the Chino Hills Community Center on Monday, 12 October at 7 p.m. when Max Scott, former executive director of Boys Republic, discusses the history and operations of this important institution helping wayward boys find purpose and direction in life.

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