Environmentalists for decades have been working to create a six-mile wildlife corridor to help bobcats, foxes, raccoons, birds and mountain lions transit from thousands of acres of open space at the coast to the Santa Ana Mountains in the Cleveland National Forest. Now, they are hopeful a final barrier to the plan can soon be eliminated.
The Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor project aims to connect 20,000 acres of coastal open space to the more than 150,000 acres of wilderness around the Santa Ana Mountains, including Cleveland National Forest, Whiting Ranch and Limestone Canyon. The corridor is a strip of habitat that traverses a highly urbanized section of Irvine with a series of underpasses below the 5 Freeway, making it non-contiguous.
Work on the corridor, led by environmental nonprofit Laguna Greenbelt, includes completing the corridor’s biggest obstacles: a series of tunnels under the 5 Freeway near Bake Parkway and Lake Forest Drive that scientific data shows most animals have been reluctant to pass through. This has impacted some animal species like bobcats, coyotes and deer through inbreeding.
If the corridor — essentially a road for wildlife — is completed, experts say, it will enrich the gene pool and revive species. Removing the obstacles could require engineering studies and ultimately a bridge that would give the animals unimpeded access.
The environmental group has completed several studies on the corridor’s viability over the decades. Most recently, Norm Grossman, the group’s president, said a study was done in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum that found that adding light and shelving along the sides of the tunnels so animals could avoid water could be helpful.
While work has yet to begin on those tunnels, environmental experts say a recent nod from a group working with the state will bolster efforts to enhance the corridor.
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Gov. Gavin Newsom set a goal in 2020 to preserve 30% of the state’s land and coastal waters as part of a global conservation effort. Since, regional groups formed throughout the state to carry out the 30x30CA mission and evaluated projects from hundreds of conservation groups working toward that goal.
The Power in Nature coalition — representing conservation groups in Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties — recently selected the corridor project as a No. 1 priority for climate resilience.
The selection means that the local corridor project will now have more eyes on it and greater chances for grant funding to help complete it. Representatives from Laguna Greenbelt are excited by their prospects for greater visibility.
“That area is the problem,” Grossman said of the part of the corridor running under the 5, describing it as a maze of dark tunnels under 17 lanes of traffic which are often flooded and show evidence of human impacts. “The walls are completely covered in graffiti, so people still go there. Animals don’t like the dark because they can’t see to the end. They don’t like the water, and they don’t like the scent of humans.”
Streamlining this area in the corridor, Grossman said, is the ultimate goal and will connect the inland area to the coastal space that is part of Crystal Cove State Park, the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in Laguna Niguel.
“We’re trying to ensure genetic diversity,” he said. “When animals inbreed, it makes them more susceptible to disease. Coyotes, bobcats, opossums and skunks have been spotted on both sides of the freeway but are not going through.”
On the other side of the freeway, through Irvine’s Great Park area, Grossman said, progress is already underway thanks to the city and developer FivePoint. As part of the development agreement, the company is finishing work on a 2.5-mile central segment and is making it more inviting to wildlife by expanding the corridor’s width to 300 feet in some areas and planting extra vegetation to shield animals from the urban landscape where they travel.
FivePoint started its work in 2018 and budgeted $13 million for it. Completion of that part of the corridor is planned for 2026.
Dr. Winston Vickers, a wildlife veterinarian who has been tracking mountain lions in California for decades as part of the California Mountain Lion Project at UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, is an adviser to Laguna Greenbelt and was contracted by the county to help with mountain lion sightings and monitoring of the cats throughout the region.
He also sees the choke of mazes at the 5 Freeway as threatening the wildlife ecosystem. Some tunnels under the 241 toll road, he said, have been used by mountain lions, but that’s because, though they are long, they are straight and wildlife can see or sense an end.
“Laguna Hills and parts of Orange County are large enough to support a number of different species,” he said. “Overtime, if they don’t connect to others of their type, it will change the population. It’s already being seen in bobcats, deer and coyotes.”
“A lot of animals depend on dispersing,” he added. “As young males explore territory they’ve never been in, it has to be fairly appealing. We’ve seen only one mountain lion that crossed the 5 that we know about.”
He, like Grossman, is optimistic that making the Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor a priority project will help move it forward. Other 30x30CA projects dubbed priorities include a wildlife crossing near the 91 Freeway in Orange County and two others along the 15 Freeway in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
With momentum for the project, Grossman said, it’s time to work with stakeholders such as CalTrans, which owns the property where the tunnels are and has been given a state mandate to ensure animal movement is enforced. A tour with the state agency is planned for early 2024.
Also, Laguna Greenbelt hopes to work with other interested stakeholders, such as the County of Orange and some private companies it hopes might be interested in helping wildlife.
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Some of the next steps would include engineering studies and an analysis of the cost of the entire cleanup of the passageways and tunnels under the 5. An ultimate goal might be a bridge, but that could be a ways off, Grossman said.
“We need to figure out how this will work, what is possible and how much it will cost,” Grossman said, adding that a recently completed wildlife overpass in Los Angeles County that goes from the Santa Ana Mountains across the 101 to Agoura Hills benefited from private company funding, something he hopes might also be a reality for this corridor.
“To do these internal studies, it would be under $1 million,” he said. “Now that it’s identified as a key project, it’s up to us to go after grants.”
“Preliminary indications are that we can make the tunnels work for the smaller animals,” he added. “But with climate change, the weather is unpredictable, and heavy rains in the tunnel can turn into a rapid river. We might be able to make it work for some of the year but not all of it.”
Vickers, too, hopes the extra attention on the project will draw the interest of those “who make decisions and figure out how to fund them.”
“It’s important to keep the conversation going,” he said. “It’s the only way to make things happen.”
The corridor’s designation as a priority project comes as the city of Irvine, which in 2013 approved zoning for part of the corridor through their Great Park land, celebrates 10 years toward that effort.