Shangri-La

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

The first true sign of Tejon's natural splendor is Monte Field, a 500-acre grove of valley oaks rising out of pale-green grasslands. With branches stretching skyward from trunks more than five feet in diameter, these trees are gracious and dignified native Californians, some as old as 400 years. They are among the nine oak species found on the ranch--more than a third of all oak species in California. The beauty of Tejon's oak savannahs has attracted filmmakers, who have used them to shoot scenes for Seabiscuit and Star Trek. This valley oak grove also appealed to Tejon Ranch's owners, who established their original offices in the basin that surrounds it.

White, 49, is a compact, affable man who spent months as a conservation biologist studying the ranch's flora and fauna through the scientific record before he ever set foot on the property. He was working with other scientists to evaluate Tejon's conservation significance as part of a project that preceded the 2008 agreement. Like most scientists before them, they were not welcome on Tejon Ranch. The agreement opens access for scientists and the public, too, making management of the conserved lands the responsibility of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. On today's trip White exudes the enthusiasm and curiosity of an adventurer setting out on the expedition of a lifetime. The low hills forming a bowl around the flat already hint of summer brown, but in early spring, he says, this place is "ridiculous with wildflowers--poppies, a sea of white popcorn blossoms, and just tons of natives in bloom." White hops out of his vehicle. Among the heavily grazed nonnative grasses that dominate the valley floor, he spots a mariposa lily's delicate white petals. Finding this fragile spring jewel raises unexpected questions about the effect Tejon's 12,000 head of cattle will have on native plants. Even in these seriously affected grasslands, White sees ideal habitat for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, a secretive cat-sized canine with erect ears and a long bushy tail, and for blunt-nosed leopard lizards, four-inch reptiles with cream-colored crossbands on their backs. "No one has documented these endangered species here because no one has taken a comprehensive look," White says. Systematically exploring Tejon Ranch to inventory its natural resources is one of the Conservancy's top priorities.

As the dirt double-track climbs through rolling hills, incense cedars begin to show among the oaks, then sycamores and cottonwoods. We are following Tejon Creek, a perennial stream that forms a luxuriant riparian corridor before disappearing into the valley floor. The higher we go, the lusher things get. Near a small pool in the stream, two tiger swallowtail butterflies are locked in the synchronized flight of a mating ritual. I sample the watercress near willows where a purple finch flits among the branches.

In a matter of minutes we have left San Joaquin Valley species for birds and plants found in the southern Sierra Nevada. Pushing on up the ridge, we hear woodpeckers as we pass Jeffrey pines near the Tehachapi crest. Once we enter the Cottonwood Creek watershed everything changes again. Clumps of sagebrush, even an occasional yucca, now dot the roadside. The creek flows southeast into Antelope Valley, the westernmost arm of the Mojave Desert.

This rare biological crossroads at the confluence of ecosystems harbors at least 25 rare, endangered, or threatened species, documented in a record scientists eked out for the past 150 years. Among them are the Tehachapi buckwheat, the Tehachapi pocket mouse, and several others found nowhere else on earth. "What I find so absolutely fascinating," White says, "is all the stuff sloshing around this place--rabbitbrush growing under an oak savannah and yuccas around the corner from a gray pine stand. It's just so unique."

And it's all but unexplored. Take the slender salamander, a lungless amphibian with four-toed feet that rarely strays beyond the six feet of its mostly underground niche. A series of slightly different species of slender salamanders evolved throughout the Sierra and Pacific Coast ranges. At least two of these live on Tejon Ranch, including the Tehachapi slender salamander, a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Brick-red and stealthy, this salamander can coil its body like a snake when threatened. Once scientists look, they may find new species of slender salamanders that have not yet been described, White says. The occurrence of several species on the ranch may also help scientists better understand evolution and how it shapes new species.

As we wend our way through the pine and Douglas fir forests near the Tehachapi crest, White is intent on finding a sooty grouse, a two-pound turkey cousin with a long neck, dark plumage, and breathy bass hoot. Sooty grouse have never been sighted on Tejon Ranch, but the old-growth trees at its canyons' edges could support them. Ever the optimist, White stops to play a recording of a male in breeding season, when they hoot from branches over open areas, hoping to entice their paramours. Sooty grouse males are known for their deep, booming calls--whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop--audible more than a quarter-mile away. They are also known for their vigorous territorial defense. "So if we were to attract one, it would fly in the window and attack us," White says half-jokingly.

Magazine Category

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.