Eco Barons Excerpt 2
ECO BARONS: The Dreamers, Schemers & Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet
© Edward Humes
From Chapter 5: Thinking Like Aldo
Between the asphalt sprawl of the Los Angeles Basin and the fertile flatlands of the Great Central Valley, where the Okies flocked during the Dust Bowl days and the Grapes of Wrath was set (and banned), a vast and surprising wilderness still thrives. Broad pastures, granite-studded hillsides, and icy-blue mountain lake water all lie within an hour’s drive of L.A. smog and concrete, hidden in plain sight as traffic snakes by on the one major freeway through the weathered grandeur of the Tehachapi Mountains. Ancient oak groves offer cool shade, thick stands of pinion pines beckon in an incessant breeze, forests of twisted Joshua trees grope toward the clouds in gnarled supplication. In spring, the hillsides are carpeted in wildflowers, a gaudy sunset of color and fragrance, the Mariposa Tulips, California Poppies, Baby Blues Eyes, Indian Paintbrush and Owl’s Clover offering a last refuge for the vanishing wild honeybee so essential to the farmlands in the distant valley below. The landscape has barely changed for thousands of years, which is why more than eighty rare and endangered species still prey, roam, roost, flower and raise their young here. Even the nearly vanished California Condor still comes to forage in tiny, fragile numbers, where long ago whole colonies nested, the skies black with the colossal birds, their broad, dark wings beating the air with the sound of feathery thunder. Now wildlife biologists must help feed and care for North America’s largest bird, for the condors cannot survive on their own. This last Southern California wilderness, this enormous blank spot on the map twelve times the size of Manhattan, may be their last best hope against extinction. There is no other place like it in California, and few to rival it on Earth: To stand on a windswept hill at Tejon Ranch is to be at once humbled, enthralled and saddened by vistas that in years past defined California and the West by their plenty, rather than their dearth. The United Nations has recognized the region as a vanishing geographic breed, one of twenty-five irreplaceable hotspots of biodiversity in the world – a designation reserved for just 2.4 percent of the earth’s surface.
But designation does not necessarily bring preservation. Tejon Ranch also happens to be the biggest piece of privately held property in all of California, and its owners and investors, enthralled by entirely different visions, have decided to build and to build big.
Where cattle grazing and hunting has been the main activity for the past one hundred fifty years, the Tejon Ranch Company and its investors want to construct the single largest master-planned community California has ever seen, which is saying a lot for the state that raised scrape and sprawl construction to an art form. They intend to raise out of the wilderness an instant city of 30,000 homes and 70,000 people called Centennial, along with industrial parks, cargo terminals, shopping centers, and a separate resort and luxury home complex, Tejon Mountain Village, abutting the condor’s historic nesting grounds – a supposedly self-contained and self-reliant community. Thirty thousand jobs could be added to a struggling local economy. The project’s completion would demand, on average, the construction of one new house every eight hours, three hundred sixty-five days a year, for twenty years.
Sums of money every bit as vast as the landscape are at stake – the raw land alone was valued at $1.5 billion in 1999, and if fully developed as currently envisioned, the ranch would be worth ten, twenty, thirty times that amount, perhaps much more when all is said and done. To those who see progress in a bulldozer’s blade and beauty in the taming of wilderness, Tejon Ranch is an irresistible plum just waiting to be built, more than a quarter million continuous acres lying a mere seventy miles from downtown Los Angeles, a straight shot up the Interstate 5 – the Golden State Freeway, as it’s called, transformed into the ultimate driveway to the ultimate bedroom community. The New York Times admiringly termed this one-of-a-kind plan for a one-of-a-kind landscape, “Playing SimCity for Real.”
Standing in the path of this future Tejon Ranch is an obscure (to the public, at least) environmental group with a small budget and outsized ambitions, the Center for Biological Diversity.
On paper, this scruffy outfit with the tree frog logo and the borrowed Tucson gem shop for a headquarters shouldn’t have a prayer against the nearly limitless political, economic and legal resources behind SimCity, except for the fact that the Center for Biological Diversity has won close to ninety percent of its five hundred cases in the past twenty years. This unprecedented success rate has quietly transformed the American landscape, safeguarding hundreds of species from extinction and preserving millions of acres of wilderness. They have taken down off-roaders and off-shore oil drillers, developers and Detroit automakers, wolf haters and condor killers, and an entire alphabet soup of government agencies from Washington state to Washington D.C. and as far away as Okinawa. The Center for Biological Diversity has fashioned itself into the most effective environmental operation you’ve never heard of, routinely outperforming the better known and more moneyed conservation organizations in exposing corruption and official law breaking, then bending local governments, multinational corporations, and even presidents to their will. Even its most ardent detractors say this is no hyperbole: It was the Center for Biological Diversity that finally forced the administration of President George W. Bush to concede, after six years of resolute denial, that there really is such a thing as global warming after all, and that it is killing (among others) an iconic species, the polar bear.
And yet, unlike the developers of Tejon Ranch, the center has never been the subject of an admiring profile in The New York Times. More typical is the Wall Street Journal’s twelve-hundred-word feature gleefully headlined, “Rancher Turns the Tables,” which gave short shrift to the organization’s remarkable string of victories and instead lionized the one person in twenty years who successfully sued them. The New Yorker magazine, in a 1999 piece by the usually astute Nicholas Lemann, portrayed the center’s leaders and staff as humanity-despising destroyers of the great hunting, ranching and cowboying traditions of the American West, closing the piece with this dark pronouncement:
They’re outlaws. Outlaws cause trouble, alter the established order, and make authority figures angry. And, in the end, they get dealt with.