Roaming the Great Park is crucial as many species reclaim lost habitat, experts say.
Red-tailed hawks now soar where Thunderbirds used to fly.
A bobcat has been spotted wandering the night at the Great Park. Coyotes crisscross runways where presidents’ planes have landed.
The park’s 4,700 acres off I-5 and Sand Canyon Avenue were settled by Gabrielino natives, conquered by Spanish, farmed by Scots and used by the military. But creating a park where a Marine air base used to be has revived the earth. It’s now sprouting crops on a 100-acre farm and providing a habitat for wild animals.
“We’ve been given the opportunity to do things with the land that haven’t been done in a long time,” said Rod Cooper, the park’s manager of operations. “Here, we have a (new) orange grove in Orange County for the first time in years.”
The master plan for the Orange County Great Park, approved by the city of Irvine, includes a wildlife corridor connecting the South Coast Wilderness with the Cleveland National Forest. Such a link is crucial to saving wildlife in Orange County, say experts at the Laguna Greenbelt, a group that for 45 years has worked to preserve wilderness and green spaces in one of the most densely populated regions of California.
“Wildlife will not thrive on islands,” said Elisabeth Brown, a biologist and president of Laguna Greenbelt. “This may be our last chance to make that connection that will help them not be cut off.”
Signs of life
What’s happening at the Great Park is an important evolution in maintaining a fragile ecosystem that had been damaged by the military operations from 1942 until 1999.
A.G. Kawamura, who runs the park’s farm, is now growing asparagus and other crops on what used to be the largest lima bean field in North America. In the run-up to America’s entrance into World War II, those fields were paved over with miles of runways and taxiways that carried fighter squadrons through four wars. But the dumping of jet fuels and solvents required an environmental cleanup that’s been going on for 17 years.
Kawamura, who runs Orange County Produce in Irvine, is a third-generation farmer whose family has been working this land for the better part of 60 years and oversees the agricultural component of the Great Park. The sandy loam soil proved as fertile as it had been when a family of Scottish immigrants named Irvine first turned the soil more than a century before.
Stone fruit trees – plums, peaches, apricots and nectarines – are rising again from soil.
“I think it’s the first commercial planting of stone fruit in Irvine in the last 70 to 80 years,” Kawamura said. “It’s just such a great spot; it’s great to have a chance to farm this area again.”
With the crops, the green spaces are returning – and with them, wildlife.
Circle of nature
Insects and seeds feed the field mice that draw the hawks and eagles. Songbirds flutter above groves of asparagus on a recent afternoon, just off runways that used to carry F-18 Marine Hornets and, at open houses, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds flying teams. Air Force One landed here regularly during the 1970s, bringing President Richard Nixon home to San Clemente.
Larger animals, such as raccoons, coyotes and even the occasional bobcat wander through, trying to traverse between the back bay regions of Laguna and the Santa Ana Mountains.
The animals want to avoid houses, condominiums and apartments that have chewed up the pastures in a place where strawberry fields do not last forever.
It’s important they roam.
They need escape paths from wildfires, such as the 1993 blaze in Laguna that decimated many species.
“At the time, the area was already cut off from other open spaces,” said Brown, of Laguna Greenbelt. “They had to go somewhere, but they had nowhere to go. Many species fell off.”
They also need to hunt for suitable mates to keep their populations strong.
Brown said inbreeding is suspected of inhibiting the recovery of species such as the cactus wren, which numbers only 15 percent of its population before the Laguna Beach fire 20 years ago.
“They need to mate, but not with their cousins,” Brown said.
Animals migrate from Limestone Canyon, crossing under the bridges of the 241 toll road and Irvine Boulevard into the Great Park. They pass through undeveloped areas, including 6 acres that are part of the future backyard for 726 homes.
A 600-foot-wide swath, wrapping around the eastern edge of the park between Irvine Boulevard and I-5, will give animals a place to roam, away from residential neighborhoods, allowing humans and nature to peacefully coexist.
“For decades, when it was a base, there wasn’t a lot of green space, and the wildlife had no place to go,” Brown said. “But now, when the people go away, the animals come back.”
Hawks now circle the runways. The spaces between the deserted airplane hangars belong to bobcats and coyotes at night.
They’re not looking to stay.
Like the Thunderbirds and presidential planes, the wild animals are just passing through, hoping to get home to canyons and forests at the other end of the county.
An old Marine base, turned into a park, may be their last hope.