Looking to the past, present and future of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks and the transformation from agriculture to conservation.

On Wednesday, April 22, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day will commemorate the unified response to an environment in crisis and the beginning of an environmental movement. For Irvine Ranch Conservancy (IRC), Earth Day has special meaning, marking the anniversaries of the City of Irvine’s Open Space Initiative and the designation as the first-ever California Natural Landmark. The Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks are a significant part of the native habitats found in Orange County, but decades prior, the owners of these lands had different plans in mind.

What we know today as the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks was once one of California’s earliest and most productive large-scale agricultural enterprises. Under the leadership of James Irvine Jr., the land known as the Irvine Ranch produced a variety of crops including beans, oranges, barley, cauliflower, grapes, papayas and more. The land was also home to the Bommer Canyon Cattle Camp and housed hundreds of head of cattle from the late 1800s until 2001.

Happy Birthday James Irvine

James Irvine 

“Much of the land was in agriculture and ranching from before the beginning of the 20th century and it continued that way for over 100 years,” said Irvine Ranch Conservancy President and CEO, Michael O’Connell. “The ranchers were the original stewards of this land. It is really only in the last 35 years or so that the undeveloped land changed from ranching to protected natural open space.”

Irvine Agricultural History

Partly to counter the wave of unplanned development in the region after World War II, the family of James Irvine began developing a master plan for Irvine Ranch in the early 1960s, which took nearly a decade to complete. The original master plan only contained about ten percent open space and 90 percent development. In 1979, the company was sold and the role of open space began to increase. When the master plan was finalized in 2004, it contained more than 50 percent open space.

Multiple factors led to 50 percent of the historic ranch being protected as open space, including the efforts of local citizens to protect more land from development through actions such as the Irvine Open Space Initiative passed by voters on Earth Day, 1988. Additionally, the Irvine Company and its Chairman Donald Bren recognized the critical value of including more open space in the master plan. Another major factor was the development of a conservation plan under the Endangered Species Act called the Natural Community Conservation Plan, which identified and provides for the regional protection of plants, animals, and their habitats, while allowing compatible and appropriate economic activity. Today, all the open space lands are publicly owned.

In 2005, the non-profit Irvine Ranch Conservancy was founded to ensure these protected lands were cared for and enjoyed in perpetuity. The next year, nearly 40,000 acres of open space was designated a National Natural Landmark by the US National Park Service, and the state of California designated the same lands as the first California Natural Landmark on Earth Day in 2008. Both designations required exhaustive, independent peer-reviewed scientific evaluation by a team of academic scientists. Although there are more than 600 designated National Natural Landmarks in the U.S., the Irvine Ranch is the only place to receive this honor for both its biology and geology.

“Most of the critical history of the Irvine Ranch open space lands has been written since the first Earth Day in 1970,” commented O’Connell. “Turning a historic ranch into a world-class nature preserve is a complicated undertaking. A community of caring people and organizations has come together on the lands, including more than 500 dedicated, highly-trained volunteers who contribute an average of 44,000 hours every year, as well as more than 30,000 people who participate and enjoy free public programs and activities offered by the volunteers.”

Irvine Ranch Conservancy and its partners OC Parks, the City of Irvine and the City of Newport Beach, along with a community of stewards are transforming the former ranch land into thousands of acres of natural habitat, where native species can thrive and nature lovers can safely explore. Over the years, they have converted old dirt ranch roads into trails that provide high quality visitor experiences. They have constructed trailheads and staging areas, along with interpretive signage and facilities. In addition, IRC’s natural resource management continues to focus on the restoration of old grazing and pasture lands back to native habitats, while increasing connectedness of the entire landscape.

“Because our mission is to protect, restore and enhance the natural resources of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks forever and help people enjoy them, at IRC every day is Earth Day,” says O’Connell. “But April 22 is special, because it is an annual reminder to us and the people who love these lands why it is so important that we care for them now and for future generations.”

Looking toward the future, Irvine Ranch Conservancy will continue their mission to restore more than 5,000 acres of native habitat, maintain the highest quality system of trails and facilities, and continue to grow a community of active, engaged supporters for the stewardship of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.

“We want to leave the land in better shape than we found it for our children’s children and the planet,” says O’Connell. “I had the special experience of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 on the National Mall in Washington, DC with more than 500,000 other people. It is amazing to think that the spectacular conservation achievements on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks were just getting started then, and how far we’ve come in the last 30 years. Especially now, we are being reminded every day of the importance of nature and open spaces in our lives. That, more than anything, is what Earth Day is about.”

To learn more about Irvine Ranch Conservancy and the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks visit irconservancy.org

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Irvine Ranch Conservancy 

Irvine Ranch Conservancy is a non-profit, non-advocacy organization created in 2005 to help preserve and support the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, enhancing the public’s connection to the land while helping partners and landowners with all aspects of stewardship. The Conservancy offers a variety of free, guided outdoor programs for all nature enthusiasts including hiking, mountain biking, horse-back riding and much more. For more information, visit www.letsgooutside.org.