“Not many realize we have a regional asset right in our backyard. Some have the misconception that these lands are going to be developed and don’t know that they have been set aside, protected in perpetuity, as a nature preserve or wilderness park,” says Scott Graves, communications manager with local nonprofit Irvine Ranch Conservancy.

Irvine Ranch Public Access – Photo courtesy of Irvine Ranch Conservancy

He is referring to the nearly 40,000 acres of land within the historic Irvine Ranch area that the organization preserves and works with to ensure the species and habitats therein are restored and maintained, for the general public to enjoy and cherish forever. The Irvine Ranch National Landmarks, which refers to various venues and locations spread across these public lands, were designated a Natural Landmark by both the state of California and the U.S. Department of the Interior – an honor highlighting how important and special these lands are to the region and the surrounding community.

The Conservancy has engaged in stewardship activities since 2005. Its partnership with public landowners, such as Orange County Parks, the city of Irvine and the city of Newport Beach, afford it the opportunity to offer programming for the public completely free of charge. Some of the upcoming Irvine programming in May and onward includes self-paced fitness hikes on Hicks Haul Road and kids mountain bike clinics in the Irvine Open Space Preserve, habitat restoration, full moon hikes, wilderness access days and morning treks in Bommer Canyon, bird walks in Mason Regional Park, wildflower seed harvest collection and walking tours at the Native Seed Farm, and much more.

Graves notes the popular programs are ones that are held at night, such as the full moon hikes, available only once a month. The moonlit night hike is a guided activity that is a clear crowd pleaser, and registration fills up more quickly because not many are offered. “Our deal with the wildlife is to do activities during the day and clear out at night and let them do their thing, because a lot of the animals are nocturnal or they tend to come out at dawn or dusk. So we try to give them their space and not interrupt their life too much,” he says.

Another favored activity is the photography tours, when people go out on the land in “what we call beauty and the beast – two of our big open trucks with some seating in the back, to do a photo tour almost like a mini safari.” A wide range of interpretive programs are also available for those who want to be educated on the work accomplished in this space. These programs have specialists comment on local plants, animals, tracking species, native American history, geology and other topics. Wilderness access days open up the area for self-guided hiking and biking on trails that are otherwise only accessible for guided activities. Family-friendly programming and weekend/weekday hikes and treks, as well as guided horseback riding and kayaking, are also on the agenda.

Quail Hill activity – Photo courtesy of Irvine Ranch Conservancy

A visit to their website, which is a storehouse of resources on their activities and initiatives, shows all programs offer a little something for everybody, irrespective of age, interest or inclination. Group sizes for participation vary based on area covered and difficulty level. While programs such as the wilderness access days witness almost 300 people at the venue, photo truck tours can only accommodate 10-20, and hikes about 20-30 depending on the volunteer and staff manpower available. “We rely heavily on our volunteers. They are leading most activities, and their availability greatly influences the amount of people we are able to bring on our land,” adds Graves. The Conservancy has about 50 people on staff with a handful dedicated to the Native Seed Farm, but approximately 500 regular volunteers contribute to operations.

In fact, the work on the active working farm best encapsulates the Conservancy’s efforts, seeking public assistance with preserving, protecting and enhancing the wild lands in these areas. Volunteers, along with and guided by Conservancy staff, help grow and tend the plants and harvest the seeds for the Native Seed Farm, which was created in 2009 due to the need for seeds to help support the goal of restoring 5,000 acres of native habitat. The farm comprises about 45-50 local species including witnessing a wildflower bloom this year featuring California poppies and goldfields, among several other floral varieties.

The habitat restoration work on the land is important to preserve and return the lands to a condition that will support local wildlife in a meaningful way. Wildlife monitoring is measured with camera traps set across strategic locations on the land to ensure the health and abundance of the species that call this area home. Among them are mule deer, mountain lions, desert cottontails and bobcats. Some of those videos are available on their website for public viewing. Also online are downloadable reference guides on the other birds, insects, plants and a wide array of flora and fauna that can be observed locally thanks to the efforts of the community’s work together.

“Our challenge with activities is getting the public to be aware that these opportunities exist. We have a really large user base on our website but still not all have been on the land or tried an activity,” says Graves, who admits even he, like many others, wasn’t aware of this land in the heart of the city that was protected and wasn’t familiar with the opportunities they presented for the community until he began working at the Conservancy. “The programs we offer are safe, fun and free – something you don’t see a lot of these days. We encourage people to visit the website, and find an activity to come experience the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.”                                                            

To learn more about volunteering opportunities or register for an upcoming activity, visit www.letsgooutside.org

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