The Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve, 72 acres of undeveloped sagebrush habitat owned by the city of Fullerton for nearly 40 years, will finally open to the public this Fall. Named for former Mayor Bob Ward, who served on the Fullerton City Council from 1972-1978, the preserve is located on the west side of Euclid Avenue across from Laguna Lake Park. A small part of the southern portion of the preserve has been partially accessible to hikers, equestrians, and cyclists since 2007 when the City split the adjacent Nora Kuttner Trail to divert cyclists who use the trail for mountain biking from other trail users. But most of the preserve has remained officially off limits to the public.
The City had originally planned to open the entire preserve when the rest of adjacent West Coyote Hills was developed into housing by Chevron’s Pacific Coast Homes (PCH), but State funding has since allowed Fullerton to purchase adjoining land originally slated for housing. Combined with additional contiguous acreage already set aside as part of PCH’s development plan, over 200 acres of West Coyote Hills located between Euclid St. and Gilbert St. will ultimately become a unified nature park, opening in phases in coming years as remediation on the former oil fields and trail layout and construction are completed.
The City had originally planned to open the Ward Preserve sometime during the first quarter of this year, but trail construction was halted in February to accommodate the nesting season of the endangered California Gnatcatcher. Gnatcatchers are a small gray songbird species found in native coastal scrub habitat.
Coyote Hills is listed as a one of several areas in Southern California to support a “core habitat” of gnatcatchers, supporting 30 or more nesting pairs. Gnatcatchers have very limited ranges near their ground nests, which can be easily disturbed by human activity. For this reason, only hiking will be allowed in the Ward Preserve’s interior, but cycling and horseback riding will be allowed on perimeter trails, according to Alice Loya, Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation. Cyclists are considered too great a danger for cutting trails through sensitive habitat. Horseback riding will not be allowed because horse dung attracts cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds such as gnatcatchers, causing a decline in gnatcatcher chick survival. The City urges people to stay out of the Ward Preserve until it is officially open to avoid disturbing the endangered birds.
The City is coordinating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW), who provided the City with a $2 million grant through the Wildlife Conservation Board to purchase one of the neighborhoods. USFW is required to approve trail plans and construction, as well as management of the area. Although the agency approved a plan for much of the Ward Preserve’s trails, they will need to approve a Draft Interim Management Plan before the public is allowed in this Fall. However, USFW has not yet received this draft plan. USFW biologist Christine Medak estimated that it would take no less than 30 days from the time of the plan’s submission for the agency to review it once it had been received.
Prior to halting construction for nesting season, wooden trail fencing along steep hillsides and bordering sensitive habitat was installed. The trails themselves, situated on abandoned oil roads, were graded and stabilized. Some habitat remediation has occurred, although many non-native plant species can be found in the preserve, along with bottles and other trash (The Friends of Coyote Hills sponsor a monthly trail cleanup on the adjacent Nora Kuttner Trail).
When opened, visitors will find newly-installed trail markers and colorful educational signs about the area’s natural and cultural history, and a sculpture honoring the Basque herders who once owned the land.
The Friends of Coyote Hills, whose efforts led to the lands currently preserved, continue to work with State representatives and others to pursue purchase of the remaining undeveloped land west of Gilbert St. to save the entire 510 acres of West Coyote Hills as a park for the public. Chevron is cooperating on an appraisal of the remaining land. With the support of Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, State Senator Josh Newman, and the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, $28.5 million has already been allocated toward this proposed purchase.
Learn more at www.coyotehills.org.
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