Traffic leads to conservation in southern California

A mountain lion is seen roaming OCTA’s Ferber Ranch property in Orange County, California. The county's Measure M2 ensures protection of wildlife and habitat for generations. Photo courtesy of Orange County Transportation Authority

By Joanna Gilkeson
August 22, 2017

What do real housewives, rare mountain lions, congested roadways and responsible conservation have in common? You can find them all in Orange County.

Southern California’s popularity attracts vacationers and full-time residents alike. By the 1980s, Orange County’s transportation infrastructure could not meet the demand of its booming population. As state and federal transportation budgets fell short, local leaders and residents began to consider a new solution: a ballot measure proposing a half-cent sales tax increase to fund countywide road improvements. In 1990, Orange County voted in favor of this solution, fondly referred to as Measure M.

Like most transportation measures, Measure M included funding for conservation to offset the impacts of road construction to wildlife and the natural environment. It worked like this: each time an infrastructure project was initiated, it was accompanied by a single, piecemeal environmental restoration budget and project.

To preserve the open space and allow for recreation, guided horseback rides are available to the public on a monthly basis at the Ferber Ranch property. Credit: Orange County Transportation Authority

Overall, Orange County residents considered Measure M a success as it helped transform outdated roadways and ease traffic congestion. In 2003, Monte Ward, Advisor to the CEO of Orange County Transportation Authority, was tasked with developing Measure M - version 2, which would be a more difficult task.

“We knew we were going to widen our circle of support for the transportation measure the second time around,” he said. “When we passed the first Measure M in 1990, we needed a simple majority from voters. By the time we were ready to renew it, the Supreme Court had ruled that counties were required to have a two-thirds majority to pass local sales tax measures.”

Ward announced OCTA’s intention to renew Measure M and Melanie Schlotterbeck had an epiphany with fellow conservationists. Schlotterbeck is the Green Vision Coordinator for the regional conservation non-profit Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks.

“Conservation runs in the family,” she said. “My mom, Claire Schlotterbeck, founded Chino Hills State Park, which reaches into four southern California counties.”

Melanie Schlotterbeck, Green Vision Coordinator for Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, says the Measure M2 environmental mitigation program is the highlight of her career. Photo courtesy of Melanie Schlotterbeck

The conservation groups already had a vision for ‘greening’ Orange County, in map form. It was called the Green Vision Map and it included a wish list of future areas to conserve. All they needed was a partner and funding to implement it.

“We thought what if we can help guide the environmental mitigation for Measure M2 to achieve really meaningful conservation and important infrastructure?” Schlotterbeck said. “What if we can do better than project-by-project mitigation in Orange County? I knew a lot about conservation, but when it came to the process of building roads, I had no idea where to begin.”

Schlotterbeck did hours of research, before she and a team of conservation negotiators met with OCTA. They proposed the idea of bundling all the freeway mitigation needs into several large conservation projects in support of the Green Vision Map.

“They invited us back the very next day, which was amazing. We didn’t expect that,” Schlotterbeck said.

OCTA was on board with the proposal. “We knew that both infrastructure and conservation were important to Orange County voters,” Ward said. “Water quality is also important to the people in Orange County because it leads to the ocean. Surfing, swimming and enjoying the beach is a way of life. There’s also a separate water quality component to Measure M2...the voters want open space and water quality, and the two complement each other.”

Together the transportation and environmental groups began to think about building roads and conservation in a more sophisticated way.

Measure M2’s infrastructure, environmental mitigation and water quality programs help to preserve the lifestyle and legacy of Orange County. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

“Regional conservation planning was becoming the standard operating procedure for community development and we wanted to apply this concept to building roads,” Ward said. “We didn’t really know how to do it, so we brought in local experts from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who had been doing large scale conservation for a long time.”

Jonathan Snyder, Fish and Wildlife Division chief for conservation in Orange and Los Angeles counties with the Service, has worked on county-wide conservation planning in Orange County since the early 2000s. According to Snyder, this was the beginning of a good partnership.

“I’m not just saying it was a good partnership because we worked together,” Snyder said. “It was the first time we directly interacted with OCTA and because we’re a regulatory agency, I think some leaders assumed we were going to bring down the iron hammer. Instead,we got to act as consultants on regional planning, which saved money and reduced timeframes to implement the projects. Now I see these people, and we talk about our kids. We’ve become friends. That’s what happens when you work with someone for years.”

The coast horned lizard is one of the reptile species protected under OCTA’s conservation plan. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Measure M2 was ultimately rewritten to include a comprehensive countywide Environmental Mitigation Program that would provide upfront conservation dollars. It was supported by OCTA, environmental groups and residents.

In 2006 Orange County went back to the polls and renewed Measure M2 for another 30 years. A minimum of five percent of the sales tax collected for freeway improvements would go towards Orange County’s natural resources and protected wildlife species.

Monthly, docent-led hikes at O’Neill Oaks Preserve, Aliso Canyon Preserve and Ferber Ranch are open to the public. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Once the Measure passed, an Environmental Oversight Committee was formed and chaired by Patricia Bates, who at the time was on the OCTA Board of Directors and Orange County Board of Supervisors. “Bates, now a state senator of Orange County, volunteered to chair this committee and worked hard to give the voters what they wanted,” Ward said. “It helped OCTA earn credibility... but in many ways Jonathan became the quiet driver of this plan. He has been a leader behind the scenes, and that’s because he really believed in this concept of strategic conservation.”

The committee met monthly to discuss the program, and opened the doors to the public. “This was a very open and transparent process. We worked together, with input from the public, to decide where to focus the conservation dollars,” Snyder said.

Trailcam photo of male black-tailed deer using the open space at Measure M2's property, Ferber Ranch, in Orange County. Photo courtesy of Orange County Transportation Authority

To date, OCTA has used the Measure M2 funding to purchase 1300 acres and is in the process of restoring another 350 acres. Every acre counts in populous southern California where land is exorbitantly expensive and undeveloped habitat connections for wildlife are in short supply.

“Orange County wouldn’t have gotten this kind of conservation if OCTA mitigated on a project-by-project basis,” Snyder said. “Using a comprehensive approach, we got a bigger bang for our buck. We focused our funding on the most ecologically important areas, rather than doing little bits of isolated habitat restoration.”

Orange County native and OCTA project manager for the Environmental Mitigation Program, Lesley Hill has worked on this program for nine years.

“To see this transportation measure benefit Orange County and the resources I grew up with is incredibly fulfilling,” Hill said. “I’m proud to work for an entity that looks at the bigger picture and makes good on the promises it made to voters.”

Habitat acquired by OCTA will help genetically isolated mountain lions, the federally threatened coastal California gnatcatcher and state species of concern like arroyo chub. OCTA also opens up the land for guided hikes and horseback rides each month, encouraging the public to responsibly embrace the conserved habitat.

The arroyo chub is identified as one of the species protected under the Measure M2 conservation plan. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Measure M2 is specifically designed to enrich existing open space by filling habitat gaps, and it complements the Service’s broader habitat conservation plan network in Orange County and the Green Vision Map. One of the most significant properties conserved through the program includes a wildlife corridor in Trabuco Canyon. This land is critical for maintaining mountain lion and bobcat populations.

“Measure M has helped educate people about the benefits of upfront mitigation, and it’s gratifying to see more people emulating this model in the transportation industry,” Hill said. “Overall, OCTA has benefitted in so many ways by going through this process with the non-profits, the Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

As Schlotterbeck puts it, Measure M2 provided a community supported ‘bank account’ to achieve conservation while streamlining 13 freeway projects. “We took a chance and a risk by putting ourselves—as non-profits—out there working with a transportation agency. We had to learn to speak transportation and OCTA had to learn to speak conservation. We had to approach everything with a “trust but verify” tactic at first. Now that the trust has been established—less verifying is necessary.”

Ten years after Measure M2 passed, OCTA has completed many of the conservation projects outlined in the measure. Gail Sevrens, Environmental Program Manager for California Department of Fish and Wildlife South Coast Region summarized it for all partners, “we are extremely proud of what we achieved with this plan. It could only have been done by working together.”

Measure M2 conservation is the result of many people’s hardwork. From Left to Right: Monte Ward, Former Advisor to the OCTA CEO; Marissa Espino, OCTA Community Relations Officer; Lesley Hill, OCTA Project Manager for the Environmental Mitigation Program; District Director for Senator Patricia Bates (36thDistrict); Jonathan Snyder, USFWS Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office Division Chief; Lori Donchak, San Clemente Councilmember and OCTA Board Member; Lisa Bartlett; Orange County Supervisor and Vice Chair of OCTA’s Board of Director; Melanie Schlotterbeck, Green Vision Coordinator for Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks; Ed Pert, CDFW South Coast Region Supervisor; Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League; Gail Sevrens, CDFW South Coast Region Environmental Program Manager; John Kabashima, UC Cooperative Extension; Dan Phu, Environmental Programs Section Manager for OCTA. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Special thanks to California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Caltrans, The Friends Group and the coalition of environmental non-profits, OCTA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the voters of Orange County for making this conservation possible.


Joanna Gilkeson is a public affairs specialist in the Carlsbad (California) Fish and Wildlife Office.