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Modern conservation history is filled with continuing conflict and temporary resolution. Time and again we battle in judicial and legislative arenas to protect wildlife and wild places. Our victories are glorious but can rarely withstand inevitable shifts in legal or political winds.

The recent victory that will safeguard nearly a quarter-million contiguous acres of California’s most diverse, unspoiled, and ecologically significant wildlands is different. Protection of the remarkable Tejon Ranch will endure because it is built on agreement instead of argument.

Audubon California and four other conservation groups spent more than 20 months hammering out a complex deal with the publicly traded Tejon Ranch Company, which owns and manages the land. Both sides emerged as winners.

The arrangement provides enforceable, protective easements for 178,000 acres, options to purchase an additional 62,000 acres for future parkland and other conservation uses, and the establishment of a conservancy with a steady stream of revenue to help manage the land. In all, 90 percent of the ranch is earmarked for protection and for enhanced public access. For its part, the Tejon Ranch Company received a guarantee from the participating groups that they will not challenge plans to develop the remaining 10 percent. However, all development must still clear the hurdles of public review, applicable environmental, zoning, and other regulations to satisfy county, state, and federal agencies.

The agreement, which was reached in collaboration with the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Endangered Habitats League, and the Planning and Conservation League, will benefit native grasslands, oak and Joshua tree woodlands, conifer forests, and the more than two dozen state and federally listed plant and animal species they support. Careful scientific analysis allowed negotiators to include provisions safeguarding vital habitat and add other protections that ensure the California condor can continue its powerful comeback from the brink of extinction.

This is the kind of science-based collaborating that Audubon has long endorsed—and has now taken to a new and exciting scale. The deal’s size and scope have won praise from the likes of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and The New York Times. But questions have been raised as well. Were conservationists too quick to quit the battle and strike a bargain? Might confrontation have produced a better result?

Audubon California’s Graham Chisholm, a leader in the pivotal negotiations that produced the deal, offers some valuable insight. We could have fought to avoid development and control the use of every acre of the ranch, he explains. Litigation would have stretched on for years, sapping the resources, though not the resolve, of our conservation allies. In the end we would have won some battles and lost others, and we certainly would not have secured the important long-term land stewardship funding or the significant public access that were gained. Instead of large scenic swaths of protected habitat, with development limited to a few selected areas, the likely result would be a checkerboard of construction and conservation, serving neither particularly well. The California condor we worked so hard to protect might once again be threatened.

Thanks to Chisholm, his colleagues, and a public company willing to be part of the solution, we’ve avoided those mistakes. Though there may yet be adjustments, the Tejon Ranch agreement is a solid foundation for conserving the precious nature of California and of America itself.

No doubt, conflict and litigation will remain important elements of conservation in the decades to come. Still, the Golden State’s protection of 375 square miles of its most magnificent natural habitat through collaboration reminds us of the value of an alternate path. It’s exciting to consider where else it might lead us.
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