Nature & Animals

Laguna Canyon Foundation gets $1 million donation – Orange County Register

The Laguna Canyon Foundation was created decades ago with a mission: protect open space, a place for wildlife to thrive and a place humans could go to get away from urban sprawl.

With a $1 million donation announced this week, the nonprofit is envisioning how to evolve the landscape near it’s headquarters tucked away in the lush canyons of the South Coast Wilderness in line with that mission.

The gift came from longtime environmental stewards and Laguna Beach residents Michael and Tricia Berns and will be used to design and create the Michael and Tricia Berns Canyon Preserve, which will surround the foundation’s headquarters at the Massen Greene House off Laguna Canyon Road.

“Our shared vision is to create a place of inspiration and education that first and foremost honors the land we’ve worked so hard to protect,” said Hallie Jones, the foundation’s executive director. “There will be opportunities for family groups and visitors to experience the wilderness and potentially small group experiences as well.”

She called the Berns dedicated environmentalists and community philanthropists.  “As active users of this open space, Michael and Tricia know firsthand the importance of inspiring future generations to protect it.”

The Berns said they have spent countless hours exploring the South Coast Wilderness area, either hiking or mountain biking, or simply sitting and staring out at the rock formations.

“It’s a huge part of our lives. We thought that it should be more than just recreation, it should be education,” Michael Berns said.

“The beauty of the canyon is just overwhelming,” he said.

The Laguna Canyon Foundation works in partnership with landowners – including developers and various local, county and state agencies – to make sure land is set aside and maintained in its natural state for the area called the South Coast Wilderness.

“Our open space has some of the last remaining coastal sage scrub habitat left in the world. That habitat is home to many endangered species of plants and animals,” Jones said. “It serves as a critical respite for the people who live in Orange County, our opportunity for solitude and peace that really contrasts with the busy, more urbanized environment of Orange County.”

The South Coast Wilderness is made up of 22,000 contiguous acres of natural land, including Laguna Coast and Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Parks, Crystal Cove State Park, and other ranges of open space in the cities of Irvine, Laguna Woods and Laguna Beach.

It’s maintained and managed by various government and nonprofit entities, linking together to preserve about 30 square miles of critical wildlife habitat.

The area is popular with hikers – some trails wind through wilderness but still offer ocean views. Bird watchers keep an eye out for native and rare species, while mountain bikers zoom along pathways. There’s even a few natural lakes tucked in its landscape.

Had early environmentalists not stepped up to protect the land for future generations decades ago, the area’s landscape would be much different, Jones said.

“In the 1970s and ’80s, the community really began to recognize what the importance of the open space was going to be as Orange County faced the prospects of more and more development,” she said. “The foresight early environmentalists in Orange County had in protecting the open space, not only for future inhabitants, but the habitat value, just amazes me.”

The Laguna Canyon Foundation was formed to facilitate the acquisition of open space in 1990, following a historic 1989 march in town to “Save Laguna Canyon” and the passage of a $21 million bond measure approved by voters the following year to preserve open space.

One of its first efforts led to the creation of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in 1990 and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park in 1993.

In 2007, the nonprofit evolved beyond just land acquisition, focusing also on conservation and education. It offers school and volunteer programs, tours and trail programs.

The Berns Canyon Preserve area will be created near the Laguna Canyon Foundation headquarters. (Photo courtesy of LCF/Jon Barber.)

Growing up poor, Michael Berns said a respite was taking long weekends away in the wilderness with cub scouts groups, he said.

He wants other kids to have the same opportunities to get away from life’s stresses, with a chance to learn about the importance of nature.

“It was important to me when I could afford it, to give those opportunities to young people,” he said. “We’re lucky we can do it.”

A previous donation from the couple to the state created the Michael and Tricia Berns Environmental Study Loop and Amphitheater at Crystal Cove State Park.

It was the right match teaming up with the foundation for their latest donation, Tricia Berns said.

“They know better than we do on what it takes to preserve it,” she said. “We thought they were very good stewards and had a good idea on how to fulfill the mission.”

Like the education area created at Crystal Cove, there will be signs added around the canyon so people can learn about the nature surrounding them.

“You won’t be able to go on the trail without learning something,” Michael Berns said.

The need for nature is even more important during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the couple said.

“It is a safe place to go on a hike there, take your children and let your children learn about nature,” Michael Berns said. “It’s incredible family time, it’s an educational and recreational and physical experience. This is the kind of thing we desperately need, especially if we need to spend more time isolating.”

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