A 13-year effort to piece together a wildlife corridor connecting the southern Sierra Nevada with a conservation easement at Tejon Ranch concluded Tuesday with the acquisition of a final property in one of the largest private nature preserves in California.
The 72,000-acre Frank and Joan Randall Preserve, named for Orange County philanthropists who made their fortune developing real estate, combines nine Kern County ranches, some of which will continue to operate with the promise their land will never be developed.
Rich in geographical and ecological diversity, the patchwork of lands ranges in elevation from 800 to nearly 8,000 feet, going from hilly savanna to pine forest. It is intended to give threatened species such as mountain lions and California condors freedom to roam in the face of climate change, fragmentation and encroaching development.
The $65 million project, all but $15,000 of it funded by the Randalls, is the largest ever assembled in California by Virginia-based environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy. The preserve surpasses the 55-year-old, roughly 50,000-acre Santa Cruz Island Reserve off the coast of Southern California.
"We like to say it's a linkage of continental importance," said Zachary "Zach" Principe, the conservancy's California stewardship project manager. He added that the assemblage fills a significant gap between the southern Sierra, the Transverse Ranges and the Peninsular Ranges stretching beyond the U.S.-Mexican border.
"This gap threatened the connectivity between all those ranges," Principe said.
Existing land uses within the new preserve will remain largely unchanged, including some but not all the ranches whose owners sold to the conservancy or signed perpetual conservation agreements. The famous Tehachapi Loop railroad development, which is surrounded by the assemblage, will not be affected by it.
One of the conservancy's goals is to introduce new wildlife crossings along Highway 58 in the Tehachapi area. To that end, the nonprofit is working with Caltrans to study and later implement a series of underpasses or overpasses so bobcats, deer and other animals can safely traverse the thoroughfare. Protective fencing is also under consideration.
Similar aims underlie much of the preserve: Concern has grown for years that animals need more and safer routes up and down the West Coast.
"As climate change and other pressures force species to migrate, where the land is protected is just as important as how much land is protected," The Nature Conservancy stated in a news release.
The preserve establishes a conservation link to the northern part of Tejon Ranch, whose publicly traded ownership reached an agreement with environmental groups in 2008 to set aside 240,000 acres for perpetual wilderness preservation.
A spokesman for Tejon Ranch Co. was unavailable for comment Tuesday. A spokesman for the city of Tehachapi was also unavailable.
Principe said ranchers with whom The Nature Conservancy negotiated sale transactions decided the time had come to leave the business, in most cases because their children did not wish to continue ranching.
"It's mostly that the next generation is not interested, is what we found," he said.
In other cases, he added, ranchers agreed not to develop the land, for a price, but may continue to raise livestock on their property indefinitely. Such arrangements account for about 11,000 acres, or about 15 percent of the new preserve.aPrincipe cited a separate situation in which a real estate development company wanted to sell a property it bought in 2008 near Walker Basin. It originally hoped to turn the land into housing, but right at about that time, the market collapsed and the development never took place, Principe added.
He noted that other properties included in the preserve were being actively considered for future development.
The deal that prompted Tuesday's announcement was the conservancy's purchase of the 28,000-acre Loop Ranch, which contains the Tehachapi Loop. That property includes about 10 miles of frontage along Highway 58.
Frank Randall said in Tuesday's release that he and Joan have long been passionate about preserving open space.
"Once it's gone," he said, "it's gone."