Valley News -

By Jeff Pack

FPUD, Wildlands Conservancy celebrate transfer of Santa Margarita River property


Last updated 9/20/2018 at 10:27pm

Shane Gibson

Zach Kantor-Anaya, regional director of the south coast region for The Wildlands Conservancy, welcomes guests to a ceremony at the trailhead for the Santa Margarita River Trail in celebration of the transfer of ownership of the trail from the Fallbrook Public Utility District to the Wildlands Conservancy, Sept. 12.

If the Fallbrook Public Utilities District had their way back in the late 1940s, the 70 or so guests and dignitaries that were in attendance at the Santa Margarita River celebration Sept. 12 would have been in trouble.

Back then, the plan was to dam the watershed.

"Right now, if that project had gone through, we'd be sitting in a high amount of water," FPUD general manager Jack Bebee said. "If you can imagine what sort of trails would be left with that project, it wouldn't have been very extensive."

Instead, the Santa Margarita River Trail now includes approximately 18 miles of multi-use trails for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.

Thanks to a nearly $10 million use of funding from Proposition 68 by The Wildlands Conservancy, those trails will continue to be used by the nearly 60,000 people that visit the valley every year.

Last week's event was to celebrate the transfer of the 1,384-acre property from FPUD, which owned the trails but had a maintenance agreement for the last 19 years with the Fallbrook Trails Council, to The Wildlands Conservancy.

The clauses of the escrow agreement also stipulate that The Wildlands Conservancy will manage the property in accordance with an integrated resource management plan. That plan will preserve the existing 18-mile trail system on the property, maintain year-round access to the property for passive recreational uses and preserve the property from development.

"We've worried for years about what was going to happen to this property," Bert Hayden said, who along with his wife Barbara were founding members of the Fallbrook Trails Council. "We've tried many different mechanisms for preserving it, and this in fact does that. The Wildlands Conservancy has impressed me with being very honest and upfront and equitable in their dealings. We didn't always have that."

According to Hayden, the conditions of the purchase include conservation easement placed on the property for perpetuity and the trails, as part of that easement, "will always be maintained by the Fallbrook Trails Council."

"We feel so blessed that this dream of the preservation of the crowned jewel of Fallbrook will be preserved forever for recreation, and education, and conservation for our town by The Wildlands Conservancy," Donna Gebhart, president of the Fallbrook Trails Council, said. "We first met Wildlands in 2016 and quickly realized what a quality organization that they were. Just absolutely incredible people."

Gebhart said Fallbrook Trails Council has worked with The Wildlands Conservancy for two years to keep the Santa Margarita property open by working to get Proposition 68 passed, while working with the FPUD board for solutions to the issue.

"I can't thank the Fallbrook Public Utilities District board enough for their perseverance in trying to make this a win-win for the district and for our community, the rate payers," Gebhart said. "I also want to thank our original founders, most of whom are here, they've been an incredible group to work with."

Founded in 1995, The Wildlands Conservancy has established the largest nonprofit nature preserve system in California with more than 143,000 acres of diverse mountain, valley, desert, river and oceanfront landscapes.

All of the properties are free of charge for recreation, including camping, hiking, picnicking and birding.

"Our organization is a 501(c)(3) public benefit organization which has two main missions: to preserve the biodiversity of the earth and to provide education programming to allow children to know the wonders and joy of nature," Zach Kantor-Anaya, regional director of the conservancy's south coast region, said. "We are passionate about stewardship. We are unlike any other organization, we have rangers and reserve staff on our location which is dedicated to improving the ecological health of the area and taking care of the environment in our property as well as providing information to visitors – our naturalists also do outdoor education programming."

Kantor-Anaya said the Santa Margarita River Trail caught the attention of the group about 10 years ago when they partnered with San Diego State University on a project involving wildlife corridors.

"We recognized early on that this is a water-blessed property," Kantor-Anaya said. "That allows the riparian community down here, which has sycamore, cottonwood and oak woodlands surrounding it to really flourish. So it's a really healthy environment, and it's also critically important for several wildlife corridors.

Shane Gibson

Donna Gebhart and her husband Al are presented a sculpture as a gift for aiding in the transfer of the Santa Margarita River Trail to the Wildlands Conservancy, Sept. 12.

"Because of the perennial flow that's in the Santa Margarita River, this is also the southernmost location where trout could be reintroduced in California, so we're looking forward to some of those opportunities to do ecological restoration on large-scale landscape levels in projects like that," Kantor-Anaya said.

Now that the river basin is guaranteed to be protected from development, many in attendance at the celebration could breathe a sigh of relief.

"It really brings closure to everything that Al and Donna and everyone has worked for," Dave Majors said, who along with his wife Carolyn Major were founding members of the Fallbrook Trails Council. "We were all equestrians, and that's why it was important to all of us to keep the trails open. It's got multiple purposes. I brought students down here when I was teaching at the high school district, and it's just very valuable for the entire community. It's a valuable resource for everybody."

Jeff Pack can be reached at [email protected]

Joe Naiman, [email protected], contributed to this report.


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