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Puerco Canyon to remain open space

Pictured is lower Puerco Canyon in Malibu. Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
1:20 pm PDT June 9, 2014

One of the last major undeveloped canyons in Malibu is slated to remain open space. On June 2, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $6 million allocation to help purchase filmmaker and Malibu resident James Cameron’s 703-acre property in Puerco Canyon. An additional $4.5 million will come from the Wildlife Conservation Board, and $1.5 million from the California State Coastal Conservancy, for a total purchase price of $12 million.

Cameron began buying land in the canyon in 1999, amassing a total of 729 acres on 24 parcels.

In the 1950s, the De Bell Ranch was established in the canyon. The pigs farmed on the property gave the canyon it’s name — puerco means pig in Spanish. The main ranch road through the canyon was for decades a popular — if unofficial — hiking, biking and equestrian route, but shortly after Cameron’s initial purchase, the road was fenced off. Security guards were stationed on the trail on weekends to enforce the closure. Years of legal challenges and negotiations ensued, but even when the guards were no longer on duty, the chain link fence remained a barrier.

Cameron listed the property in 2007 for $25 million. Earlier this year, he agreed to sell to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for $12 million.

A SMMC staff report on the property states that the landowner had secured two active “Approvals in Concept” from Los Angeles County “towards permitting development of the project site.” 

“Recent applications for Coastal Development Permits for single parcels in large clusters of affiliated LLC-owned parcels in the subject section of Malibu have presented a major challenge to voluntarily securing public trail easements,” the report states. “The subject property is at a crossroads between development and permanent conservation. It is critical to act now while the 24 legal parcels are still available under a single ownership.”

According to Paul Edelman, chief of natural resources and planning for the SMMC, the Puerco real estate transaction is expected to conclude in less than 30 days.

“The Supervisor really wanted this,” Edelman told the Malibu Surfside News. “This is the last big piece of core habitat [in the] area.” 

Once escrow closes, the public will be able to make their way unimpeded through more than 15 square miles of contiguous parkland from the Pacific Coast Highway trailhead at 1,000-acre Corral Canyon Park to the 70-mile-long Backbone Trail at Mesa Peak Motorway in 8,000-acre Malibu Creek State Park. 

The Puerco Canyon purchase will also preserve what is described as critical wildlife habitat. “Vegetation and wildlife include native grassland, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, sycamore-willow woodland, oak trees and a wealth of animals, including mountain lions, bobcats, and gray foxes,” a press release from Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, states. “The acquisition will also protect drainage areas that play an important role in the movement of wildlife in the area.”

Yaroslavsky, an advocate for public access and open space, has made a concerted effort to finalize acquisition of several key pieces of land for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area before his final term in office ends later this year.

The SMMC’s sister agency, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which also oversees Corral Canyon Park, will be responsible for the Puerco Canyon parkland.

Edelman also told the Malibu Surfside News that escrow recently closed for a key 416-acre parcel in Decker Canyon, and that the final round of formalities in the Charmlee-Bluffs Park Open Space swap agreement between the City of Malibu and the SMMC were concluded this week, officially transferring control of Bluffs Park Open Space to the city in exchange for Charmlee Wilderness Park.

“We just have to change the signs now,” Edelman said.

Between Charmlee and the Decker property, the Conservancy has now successfully acquired more than 1,000 contiguous acres—one and a half square miles—in western Malibu for public recreation and conservation. The Decker property connects Leo Carrillo State Park to Charmlee and forms an integral link in the proposed Coastal Slope Trail.

Several additional acquisitions have also been finalized recently, including the 78-acre Stone property located in Escondido Canyon, which is an important piece of the Coastal Slope Trail plan. Combined with last year’s acquisitions, including 86-acres in Latigo Canyon and a 525-acre section of Ladyface Mountain between Malibu and Agoura Hills, almost 2,000 acres of critical habitat have been added to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.