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San Clemente Journal

Stewards Of The Land

Aug 22, 2017 12:19PM ● By Donia Moore
By Donia Moore

Look closely in that patch of Coastal sagebrush. Maybe you’ll see a Coastal Horned Lizard enjoying the late afternoon sun. Or perhaps a burrowing owl will catch your eye if you are very quiet. These are only two of the thirty-two “Covered Species” - seven of these “covered species are threatened or endangered species - protected by the managed habitat of The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo on San Clemente’s northern border. 
Since 1882, members of the O’Neill/Moiso family (The Ranch Family) have owned and managed the 23,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo (The Ranch), Orange County’s last working cattle ranch and farm. At the family’s decision, thousands of acres were dedicated over the years as regional parks, wilderness areas, habitat conservancies and perpetually protected property.
In 2004, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved the family’s comprehensive open space preservation and land use management plan which allowed for 75% (or about 17,000 acres) of The Ranch to be protected as permanent open space known as The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo. The remaining 25% (or about 6,000 acres) of The Ranch was approved for development as several intergenerational villages within a community called Rancho Mission Viejo. 

Tarantulas, Astronomy, Moonlight Hikes
Tucked away in a series of scenic canyons behind San Clemente’s Talega development, The Reserve is dedicated to education and conservation. The organization hosts a wide range of field studies by noted biologists as well as nature walks and other events for schoolchildren and the public.  Since 1996, school groups from kindergarten to high school have experienced field trips that may be their first encounter with a wilderness environment. The trained volunteer docents and naturalists lead the
excursions into the conservancy. High school students learn about biodiversity and conservation, while families enjoy special programs aimed at helping to develop the next generation of land stewards. Most nature programs last about two hours, if appropriate for the age group. It might be an Astronomy night studying the stars and the constellations, a Tarantula night looking for and observing the fuzzy arachnids, a morning hike to watch for early rising mule deer. Other programs include animal awareness lectures, bird safaris, or native plant discoveries. Great care is taken to educate the next generation about the importance of taking responsibility for the inhabitants of The Reserve.

Where is the Donna and Richard O’Neill Conservancy?
The Reserve is part of Rancho Mission Viejo. Although most area residents recognize that as the name of a nearby city, the ranch actually remains the largest working cattle ranch in Orange County. 
“The public is welcome and encouraged to attend our nature education programs” says Leeta Latham, Education and Public Programs Manager for The Reserve. “We have several meeting points, depending on the type of program. In San Clemente, the meeting place is up at the end of Avenida Talega. 
The Reserve hosts a wide range of field studies by noted biologists as well as nature walks and other events for schoolchildren and the public. There are no signs, but there is a small parking lot at the road’s end, where specially trained docent tour guides meet the programs’ participants. Reservations must be made in advance as groups are kept to a maximum size. This is the only way to enter The Reserve because of the fragile nature of the plants and animals under The Reserve’s protection. 
“Scout groups and volunteers are welcome to help out with 2nd Saturdays Trail Clearing or other needed repairs, from October to June. If people want a more intense experience, they can take the volunteer training orientation and join The Reserve’s family as a certified tour guide or docent”, encouraged Leeta. She is a Certified Interpretive Guide and has been on the staff of 
The Reserve for nearly five years. She has extensive experience and environmental education as well as a science background in environmental geography. Her personal goal for The Reserve is 
to have people experience and value it first hand so that they can build an emotional connection to the land. 

The Value of a Handshake
The story of The Reserve actually began in a deal struck with a handshake in San Francisco between fellow Irish immigrants, James Flood and Richard O’Neill, Sr. In 1882, Flood and O’Neill became equal partners of the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in Northern San Diego County and its adjoining Rancho Mission Viejo and Rancho Trabuco in southern Orange County. Together, the ranchos totaled more than 200,000 acres, one of the largest of all the California ranchos.
Flood was a former carriage-maker turned San Francisco saloon keeper. When he and partners gained control of the most profitable of the famed Comstock Lode’s silver deposits, he became known as one of Nevada’s “Silver Kings.” O’Neill was a hard-working and well-respected cattleman born in the heart of Ireland’s dairy country. He owned a small meat market near the docks of San Francisco. The two men met when O’Neill began providing meat to Flood’s saloon, and a friendship was forged, which endured through generations. Flood provided the money to purchase the ranches while O’Neill, offering his skills as a cattleman as his sweat equity, agreed to work out his half as resident manager.
Take care of the land and the land will take care of you …
While it is true that much of the rancho’s holdings were developed into cities like Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, Ladera Ranch and even Camp Pendleton Marine Base, thousands more acres of undeveloped land have been conserved as permanent natural open space for habitat and species protection. Coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, and vernal pools are a few of the types of habitats preserved. Seven endangered or threatened species that occur on The Reserve lands have been identified and are carefully monitored.  

Are you interested in helping a school class have the opportunity to experience the inside outside? Sponsorships are always welcome. You can choose a level of membership support that works best for you and your family, or you can participate in just the programs in which you are interested. 
“The land itself is rich in history, dating back to the Ahachemen Native Americans and beyond. I would like to see visitors develop a sense of stewardship and be driven to share a culture of care for it,” Leeta says.
Become a steward of the land - help take care of it for future generations, and it will take care of you. Maybe you’ll even be rewarded by another glance at that little coastal horned lizard, happily soaking up some rays.
The Reserve -; (949)489-9778