Tolling Points: Toll Agency’s Grazing Program Reduces Wildfire Risk in Orange County

Originally published by the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA)

California’s Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) could hardly have known that the 23 acres of disturbed land it bought in 2005 near the Cleveland National Forest would end up on the front lines of the effort to keep Orange County safe from two large wildfires.

But 15 years after the original purchase, the decision to restore natural habitat at the Live Oak Plaza Conservation Area (Live Oak Plaza) —and the more recent plan to bring in cattle up to three times a year to graze the area and remove dried-out vegetation—is looking like a masterpiece of community care and social responsibility.

“With fire season upon us, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) are taking steps to reduce the amount of potential wildfire fuels, such as dry vegetation, in roadway medians, areas surrounding toll plazas and environmental mitigation sites we protect,” The Toll Roads wrote in a late July blog post. Two months later, the agency announced it was “swinging open the corral gate” for its pilot grazing program.

But none of it would have been possible if TCA hadn’t had the foresight to buy the land, at a time when the Live Oak Plaza was a flashpoint for residents of rural Orange County concerned about the continuing growth of nearby suburbs.

Doing well by doing good

TCA’s original deal to buy the Live Oak Plaza was very much a matter of doing well by doing good. By acquiring the parcel and promising to transform it from pastureland back to its natural state, the Agencies broke an eight-year logjam between local landowners and a real estate developer, while preserving habitats that it could use as mitigation for its future capital improvement projects.

“A 42,000-square-foot strip mall with a gas station was planned for a portion of the property that sits across the road from the Cook’s Corner tavern, a longtime biker hangout,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. “About a third of the property was slated for open space and a third for residential development. The county approved the zoning change in 1997, but residents filed suit challenging the decision.”

The county approved the strip mall plan after five years of court action, but “the opposition was relentless,” investor Michael Buckley said. For their part, “canyon residents say their patience is being tried by the continuous flow of new homes, business and traffic into their once-bucolic surroundings.”

The arrangement at the time was a win for the community, an opportunity for TCA, and at least a form of closure for Buckley. But this year, Live Oak Plaza is taking on new importance as part of the effort to keep the community safe against a mounting climate disaster. By early November, the local NBC affiliate was reporting(link is external) that the Blue Ridge and Silverado fires were mostly contained. But not before they burned more than 26,000 acres in Orange County, forced 90,000 people to evacuate, left(link is external) two firefighters in critical condition and drove road closures across a large share of the TCA system.

A part of Orange County heritage

TCA takes a number of actions to contribute to the county’s annual fire prevention effort. The grazing plan became the latest addition after TCA adopted conservation grazing as the “preferred science-based approach” to manage the property.

Conservation grazing, or targeted grazing, is the use of grazing livestock to improve and maintain the quality of biodiversity of natural areas that have been previously disturbed. TCA arranged access to the herd through a contract with a local rancher.

“TCA is eager to join in a collaborative effort with the cattle grazer and scientists to implement, monitor and review this pilot program. And, we are looking forward to providing updates on the progress,” said Dave Speirs, TCA’s Chief Engineering and Environmental Planning Officer.

“I’m so pleased we are able to begin this grazing program to Live Oak Plaza,” said Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, who serves as Chairwoman of one of TCA’s two Boards of Directors . “Protecting native habitat without the use of harmful pesticides is something I have long championed in my city, and I’m thrilled to see TCA instituting this approach as well.”

“Ranching is part of Orange County’s heritage,” agreed TCA Director Scott Voigts, a member of the Lake Forest City Council. “This common-sense approach to land management allows us to use natural resources for the benefit of the community at large and preserve open space for future generations.”

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