Shangri-La

Ewan Burns
Ewan Burns
Ewan Burns

Shangri-La

An hour from the smog and concrete of Los Angeles, a quarter-million-acre oasis, bursting with rare and unusual species, is waiting to be discovered.

By Jane Braxton Little
Published: March-April 2010

A golden eagle circles over Tejon Ranch's steep slopes, soaring in arcs that bring it eye-level with my perch atop a bald peak. Its bronze head glints in the spring sun as it flies over hillsides blazing orange with California poppies and purple with lupine. The bird's widening rings take it within sight of the Tehachapi Mountains' rocky spine, but it veers northeast toward the Sierra Nevada, where I lose it against the dark green of the pine and fir forest. My peak settles into a quiet as immense as the surrounding panorama.

Tejon Ranch is the old California: wild, vast, and virtually unknown. Desert, grassland, coastal, and mountain ecosystems converge in a landscape that ranges from just above sea level to nearly 7,000 feet. Along with golden eagles, the ranch's dizzying diversity of species includes California condors, southwestern willow flycatchers, and Swainson's hawks, which ride wind currents up canyons and over the Tehachapi Mountains on their southward migration. Bears prowl the backcountry and elk graze on windswept mountain slopes. This is a working ranch, where cowboys run cattle across 422 square miles--a range bigger than Rocky Mountain National Park and 18 times the size of Manhattan.

Scientists with Conservation International have recognized the region encompassing most of Tejon Ranch as one of 25 irreplaceable biodiversity hot spots worldwide, a designation reserved for just 1.5 percent of the land on earth. It is an untamed terrain where mountain lions prey on unsuspecting fawns and trees twisted by storms cling to remote ridges. A mere hour's drive away, steeped in its sophistication and smog, lies Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city.

With urban sprawl spilling out of the L.A. basin into neighboring valleys and hills, Tejon Ranch has been vulnerable for decades. Today, thanks to a landmark agreement between the ranch owners, Audubon California, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Endangered Habitats League, and the Planning and Conservation League, 90 percent of this private ranch will be protected. In 2008, after 20 months of painstaking negotiations, the parties signed a conservation accord that will keep up to 240,000 of Tejon's 270,000 acres permanently free of development. The remaining 30,000 acres--some of it habitat for endangered condors--will be parceled and sold, some for luxury homes, spas, and boutique hotels. The agreement also created the Tejon Ranch Conservancy to protect the natural resources and to provide opportunities for the public to learn about and experience them firsthand. Among the Conservancy's primary goals is scientific documentation of this largely uncharted territory.

The pioneering accord is a new approach to conservation as bold and far-reaching as the land it protects. Instead of prolonging traditional trench fighting, which promised to drag on for years, the environmental partners opted to accept inevitable development on 10 percent of the ranch to safeguard the hundreds of rare and endemic species living on the other 90 percent. The scale of the biodiversity it sustains may make the Tejon agreement the greatest victory he will see in his lifetime, says Graham Chisholm, Audubon California's executive director. "This is conservation on a staggering scale."

I venture into this newly protected land the way the first explorers did: on horseback. To reach my steed, I join hundreds of thousands of travelers on Interstate 5, a major highway that runs north out of Los Angeles through Tejon Pass over the Grapevine, a hectic four-lane vestige of the winding route that gave it its name. I mount up at the adobe ranch house, built in the late 1850s by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who paid $90,000 in gold pieces to consolidate several Mexican land grants and establish Tejon Ranch. Cattle grazing and hunting have kept his legacy intact for 150 years.

Bruce Ryan heads our small posse--a photographer, a ranch hand, and me--through the rolling hills covering the ranch's southernmost section. Dressed in a black Stetson, western shirt, and fringed chaps, the 63-year-old Ryan is a dead ringer for the mature Marlboro Man. After 36 years as a Tejon cowboy, he knows this landscape, and he guides us across hillsides of purple paintbrush, goldenbush, and knee-high grasses rippling in the wind. When a western meadowlark sings from a patch of dried grasses, Ryan whistles right back. In the distance, clouds flirt with the 6,803-foot peak of Tejon's highest mountain, on the Tehachapi ridge.

Although our horses tromp through patches of volunteer wheat and nonnative grasses, Tejon's dry creek beds and rock-strewn slopes have a timeless quality that makes me wonder how my view differs from what Jedediah Smith and Kit Carson saw when they passed through more than 170 years ago. My reverie evaporates when Edwards Air Force Base looms in the distance on the eastern horizon and a cement factory appears to the northeast. Although here on its southern fringe, the fragility of Tejon's hedge against development is most obvious, the ranch is bounded by a major thoroughfare, and cut by powerlines and the California aqueduct. Discovering Tejon's wild heart takes delving into the backcountry beyond what a horse can travel in one day.

The next morning I head out in a Ford Expedition with Mike White, a biologist and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy's new director of conservation science. We travel east, leaving the highway hum, exhaust, and pavement behind. The road soon narrows, and the landscape shifts from oil-pumping derricks to pistachio groves, vineyards, and fields where cattle bear Tejon's cross-and-crescent brand, one of the oldest registered in the United States. I spot the distinctive white eyebrow and crown stripes of a lark sparrow munching a grasshopper from its perch on a fence beside the road.

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