The Orange County Transportation Authority joined with officials from federal and state wildlife agencies and local environmental leaders on Tuesday to announce the completion of plans to protect 1,300 acres of open space, ensuring that it remains free from development forever.
Tuesday’s event marked the culmination of more than 10 years of work between the agencies to finalize the plans related to the Measure M Freeway Environmental Mitigation Program, which protects natural habitat and rare animal and plant species in Orange County.
“This is an important milestone for Orange County following years of hard work and strong coalition building between OCTA, state and federal officials, and local environmental community leaders who all care deeply about preserving our wildlands for generations to come,” said OCTA Director Lori Donchak, who chairs the Environmental Oversight Committee.
The certification of the final conservation plans, known as the Natural Community Conservation Plan/Habitat Conservation Plan and the associated environmental impact report, is the culmination of OCTA’s work with both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Our work with OCTA, the state and other partners to develop this plan is an example of proactive conservation planning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is spearheading across Southern California,” said Paul Souza, Regional Director of the Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “This plan provides assurances that crucial transportation projects can go forward efficiently while safeguarding Orange County’s priceless natural resources.”
OCTA’s freeway environmental mitigation program allocates funds from Measure M, the county’s half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, to acquire land and fund habitat restoration projects in exchange for streamlined approvals for 13 freeway improvement projects throughout Orange County.
The program is a comprehensive effort to offset the environmental impacts of the freeway construction projects in Measure M by preserving large swaths of valuable habitat, to protect the plant species and rare animals that live on the land and provide connectivity to other natural lands.
Through the environmental program, OCTA has acquired seven parcels of natural land previously slated for development in Trabuco Canyon, Silverado Canyon, Brea and Laguna Beach from willing sellers for the purpose of preserving it.
Approximately $10 million in funding also has been made available for 11 habitat restoration projects, totaling nearly 400 acres.
Overall, approximately $280 million is expected to be made available for environmental conservation projects over a 30-year period. Another component of OCTA’s environmental program provides funding to cities for projects that help protect water quality in Orange County.
OCTA’s environmental efforts have been guided, in part, by the participation of the Environmental Oversight Committee, consisting of a dozen public members who make recommendations to the OCTA board of directors, who sent the plans to the federal and state wildlife agencies for final approvals.
“We’re proud of the example we’ve set through this process in both enhancing our transportation system and protecting the valuable natural environment that makes Orange County such an attractive place to live,” said OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson. “We continue to fulfill the promises we made to the county’s voters in Measure M and we hope the others in the state will follow this innovative and cooperative effort.”
With the final environmental approvals in place, OCTA staff will continue to work toward completing Resource Management Plans for each of the preserves, which also will outline potential public access to the properties that is safe and compatible with the biological goals.
Those individual plans for each preserve are being finalized. In the meantime, OCTA continues to host periodic hikes and equestrian rides on some properties.
The OCTA board last year initiated an endowment fund that will ensure the long-term management and maintenance of the preserves to protect their valuable biological resources.
OCTA will continue to work toward designating appropriate long-term managers for the preserves while identifying and funding new restoration projects.
For more information on OCTA’s environmental program, visit octa.net/environmental.
This article was released by the Orange County Transportation Authority.