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Banning Ranch Conservancy announces new name for land, plans for future

By SARA HALL

Now that the property they’ve fought to protect for more than two decades is on the verge of secured, Banning Ranch Conservancy (BRC) is preparing for the next step. As part of that process, BRC officials hosted a virtual meeting last week and announced a new name for the land, grant funding they were just awarded and explained their plans for the future. 

On Wednesday (Dec. 7), BRC officials discussed what’s next for the 387-acre property consisting of wetlands and coastal bluff at the mouth of the Santa Ana River on the border of Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, and Costa Mesa.

The first few years of the process will be focused on strategic planning, oil remediation and restoration. Once it’s safe for park purposes, it will open for public access and the focus will be on protecting the ecological systems and sacred sites on the land, while offering passive recreational and educational opportunities. 

The single most important factor in the effort to keep the space open was when Frank and Joann Randall donated $50 million to the cause to help purchase Banning Ranch, said BRC Board President Terry Welsh. That got the ball rolling and the acquisition of the land is now fully funded. 

“When Banning Ranch becomes public, there’s going to be a new name,” Welsh announced. “It’s going to be called the Frank and Joann Randall Preserve, or the Randall Preserve, with additional wording to come from the tribes.”

They expect that the property will be in public ownership by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority by the end of the year.

Another announcement during the meeting will help with funding the BRC’s plan for resource management.

On December 6, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and NOAA, joined by the Department of Defense and private sector funding partners, announced that BRC was awarded a $500,000 grant. 

The National Coastal Resilience Fund invests in conservation projects that restore or expand natural features such as coastal marshes and wetlands, dune and beach systems, oyster and coral reefs, coastal forests and rivers, floodplains, and barrier islands that minimize the impacts of storms, sea-level rise and other coastal hazards on nearby communities. This year, the NCRF announced 88 new grants totaling more than $136 million.

The BRC grant will fund a resource management and coastal resilience plan for the Randall Preserve. BRC will work closely with the new titleholder, MRCA, over the next few years to get these plans created. The project will conduct robust community and stakeholder engagement, and collect data and survey the site to identify potential nature-based recommendations to be implemented.

Banning Ranch Conservancy announces Randall Preserve

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Banning Ranch Conservancy

Banning Ranch will be renamed the Frank and Joann Randall Preserve after oil remediation is complete and it opens to the public

During the meeting, Welsh briefly went over the history of the land, noting that people have been on Banning Ranch for at least 3,000 years. It sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean and sits at the mouth of a river creating a marine estuary. It was a pretty special place “way back in the day,” he said. It was used for agriculture and, later, oil production, which began in the 1940s.

In 1999, Welsh started a Sierra Club task force dedicated to preserving Banning Ranch as open space. 

“We were literally on the cusp of seeing that dream become real. Needless to say the last 20 years have been intense,” Welsh said. And what comes next, “is going to be equally as intense and it’s going to require a lot of people working together.”

Welsh mentioned the controversial proposed development project that the California Coastal Commission ultimately denied in September 2016. After that, the property owners gave serious consideration to selling the land for conservation purposes, Welsh said. Trust for Public Land began to negotiate with the owners at that time.

After some more work and fundraising, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority agreed to accept the land and manage Banning Ranch.

In May, BRC hired Conservation Impact and Nonprofit Impact to run a thoughtful, strategic planning process.

“It was a great time for Banning Ranch Conservancy to take a breath, regroup and create a vision for how our organization would evolve,” said Executive Director Melanie Schlotterbeck.

The effort is on the components of identity, constituents and capacity, she said. Through figuring out their focus, who they connect with, and what the organization can do, they can realize their impact, she explained. 

What is clear is that they need to shift who they are, what they do and their approach, she noted. 

“For the last 20 years we’ve been in fight mode and we now need to transition more into a collaborative mode,” Schlotterbeck said.

This will mean some adjustments, including in how they operate, solve problems and budget. The implications are wide ranging, she added. 

The first change will be moving from “stop the development of the land” to ensuring that future use restores and protects the ecological systems and sacred sites on the land.

BRC set internal and external goals to guide their work in the future, Schlotterbeck said. It’s an opportunity to “grow a garden of supporters, resources and partners,” she noted.

The internal goals require the organization to shift mindset, practices and processes to operate as a more mature nonprofit with a strong governing board, to support a growing organizational capacity, with improved communication and reliable funding.

To reach these goals, BRC is taking action, including refreshing the website; hiring a new staff member to help with communications; diversifying the donor base of private and public gifts and grants, including a new giving program rolling out this month and transitioning from a founding board to a governing board.

For their external goals, BRC adopted a multi-faceted strategy to develop and strengthen organizational influence by engaging in strategic partnerships, empowering grassroot interests, coalescing grasstops leaders and disseminating science-based studies.

They’ve taken action toward these goals, including establishing or strengthening strategic partnerships with entities like local tribes, nonprofits and MRCA; understanding the needs and interests of grassroots stakeholders and how they overlap with BRC priorities in order to facilitate action; strengthening relationships with residents and local businesses through community building events like clean-up days, work parties and pop-up events; identifying and bringing together stakeholders who share their priorities, who will influence or participate in the planning process; building a list of influencers to help promote goals, this includes working closely with tribal representatives, elected officials and community leaders; focusing on best available science and pulling together and making accessible the historical biological surveys that serve as a benchmark for future studies.

“We have some serious work ahead tending to our garden of goals,” Schlotterbeck said. “The foundation has been built over the last 23 years and this strategic plan sets the organization up for its next phase.”

The reality is that some of this is new to the Conservancy, Schlotterbeck said and they’re learning as they go. They need to be flexible and able to shift as things unfold, she added. 

Schlotterbeck also explained how they will look at nearby landscapes and environments that are interconnected with the Banning Ranch area. The aim is to look at them holistically rather than a piecemeal fashion, she said. The priority is to protect the habitat and diverse species of the region.

Another reason for the plan is to get people on the property, or neighboring landscapes, which builds an understanding and appreciation for the land. That love and respect translates to all interactions in natural areas, she added. 

A requirement with the Randall donation and other funding is the inclusion of public access and recreational opportunities.

“We do not want to see the preserve fenced off and closed to the public,” Schlotterbeck said, “instead, we see this land as an important avenue for educating the community and public at large, to begin stewardship and restoration work, engaging the tribes and providing access to nearby disadvantaged communities.”

There is $2 million of stewardship money from the Trust for Public Land dedicated to the property, Schlotterbeck explained. These funds will be invested in the management aspects of the land (as opposed to parking planning and restoration). 

MRCA will oversee the land during the oil remediation, which cleans up the oil infrastructure, and will eventually make the property suitable for park purposes. Some infrastructure will remain on a small portion of the property with private status. The seller is responsible for clean-up with a plan in place adopted by state agencies. 

During the oil remediation period, the property will be closed to the public, Schlotterbeck confirmed. They anticipate the process to take between 24-36 months to complete.

Several plans are being developed for the property that cover: resource management, tribal engagement and public access. 

The BRC speakers also answered a number of questions from the public, including about security, land use, archaeological sites, new building plans, community involvement and more. 

Regarding questions about future public access, Schlotterbeck said it’s too early to know exactly what that will look like, but it will be passive use, like hiking or bird watching (compared to active use like a sports field). Specifics like parking, trail locations, or whether dogs will be allowed, are yet to be determined. 

In another announcement, Community Engagement Coordinator Paul Waggoner said that BRC is launching a program in 2023 called PEER (Partnership Engagement Equity Restoration).

 The PEER program will be focused on two main efforts: To continue to build a robust partnership network for local restoration, which will hopefully bring about a more effective and coordinated effort in the area and launching a monthly clean-up and other action days in 2023 (located on neighboring lands until after the oil remediation is complete), which will provide opportunities for individuals, businesses and organizations to help local land.

The PEER program will address several key areas of focus for the Conservancy. They want to equip the communities of the coastal Santa Ana River to protect and restore biodiversity, activate community stewardship and to advocate for appropriate public access, Waggoner said. 

The borders around these lands are arbitrary, he added, its one ecosystem. The health of one area benefits the other neighboring and connected areas, he explained.

“We recognize that the ecosystems on these lands could be healthier than they are, they’ve been impacted for decades from all kinds of human activity, infrastructure, misuse, invasive species and more,” Waggoner said. 

There’s a long list of restoration work that’s already been identified and still needs to be done, he noted. What’s needed is more coordinated attention, time and financial investment across all interested parties. 

The PEER program will also prepare and educate the community for future public access and planning processes for the Randall Preserve and connected lands and waters, Waggoner said. 

The seeds are planted for the PEER Program, Waggoner said, partnerships and funding are both well on the way. But they need help from the community, both financially and practically by getting involved, he added. 

The restoration process along the Santa Ana River coastal corridor is just beginning, Waggoner said. 

“It’s really exciting for us. It has the potential to be a major transformation of coastal open space into functioning and resilient ecosystems,” Waggoner said, noting similar transformations on neighboring lands like Upper Newport Bay. “How amazing would that be to see such a beautiful transformation.”

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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