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One Great Big Beautiful Buffet: The Ecological Restoration of Orange County’s Great Park

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Agua Chinon, a natural waterway buried in a concrete channel for the last 60 years, will be day-lighted and reestablished as a functioning southern California riparian ecosystem. The stream will be natural and only have seasonal flows. Found throughout the park will be 18 different habitats which can be seen from a “Habitat Trail.”

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The environmentally passionate Great Park Design Studio team which includes Steven Handel, Ph.D., Restoration Ecologist, Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Ken Smith, ASLA, Master Designer, and Milan Mitrovich, Ph.D., Senior Wildlife Biologist are creating a beautifully designed buffet and salad bar for wildlife as well as an exquisite, restorative and enjoyable place for the humans who visit the Orange County Great Park.

Steven Handel, Ph.D., Restoration Ecologist and principle of Green Shield Ecology, Inc.

The objectives of the Orange County Great Park restoration include: the science, art and practice of ecological restoration; protecting, restoring and monitoring native habitat; and working with public agencies to improve standards for ecological restoration.

Downed logs invite long tailed weasels who hunt for the eggs laid by arboreal salamanders. The root ball should have some of the soil still attached. Logs should be placed parallel to the slope then anchored with boulder outcroppings or staked for stability.

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One major goal for the 1,347 acre Great Park is to highlight and restore hundreds of acres of diverse native plant communities. Restored habitats will be found in three major sections of the park, the Agua Chinon, the Canyon and the Wildlife Corridor.

The Wildlife Corridor, off limits to the general public, will be reserved for animal movement, providing an essential ecological backbone for the park and a critical biotic link between existing natural areas in coastal and central Orange County. Agua Chinon, a natural waterway buried in a concrete channel for the last 60 years, will be day-lighted and reestablished as a functioning southern California riparian ecosystem. Within the Canyon, a perennial stream and ponds, reflective of southern California’s foothill and lowland aquatic habitats, will support a wide variety of native plants and animals. The Canyon will also showcase unusual habitats, including vernal pools, rock outcrops, and fern grottos. There will be different experiences as each season progresses.

Phenology Tables: The plantings are placed so throughout the seasons the colors will range from green to yellow, purple, red and pink. Both cactus and California Buckwheat have an array of colors that will change from month to month, thus painting a new picture all the time.

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Agua Chinon will be where the phenology table’s plants occur in the wild, however, those plantings will also grow in other areas of the park where they will be available for educational outreach or science programs. The goal is for people to explore on their own and have a much more general experience.

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The Bosque will contain about 3,000 different tree species and a flowering display—much like a woodland, as well as many more trees in the urban or built areas on the northwest edge of the park. These include pocket parks, children’s parks, gardens, etc. in those much more structured areas. The canyon area will be less structured.

Rock piles and rock fields provide shelter for small mammals, lizards, side-blotched lizards and common king snakes. White footed mice will take advantage of these refuges as will ground beetles and other insects who utilize the rocks as shelters. The rocks create a number of new micro-habitats which are needed to form the baseline to accelerate any restoration. The edges should be soft and fade from one ecotone to another with an undulating and porous perimeter.

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The Promenade of the Senses will use sight and smell at the same time and will be located on the eastern side of the Botanical Garden, adjacent to the lake and stretching around it. The gardens will incorporate that type of vegetative community.

“An enormous salad bar is being created—no sushi—we want the native animals of Orange County to all have a favorite selection available along with a place and a time at the Orange County Great Park.” –Steven Handel, Green Shield Ecology Inc., Great Park Design Studio

Agua Chinon will be where the phenology tables occur in the wild, however, those plantings will also be expressed in different areas of the park where they will be available for educational outreach or science programs allowing people to explore and study. Agua Chinon is where people can explore on their own and have a much more general experience. Found throughout the park in all the areas will be 18 different habitats which can be seen from a “Habitat Trail”.

The Wildlife Corridor will connect the existing northern and southern reserves. At the northern end of the park, this will create access from Limestone Canyon and the El Toro National Refuge all the way through to Shady Canyon, the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, and Crystal Cove State Park.

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The Orange County Great Park, which is almost twice the size of Central Park, will be a major metropolitan park and the focal point of the redevelopment of the 4,700-acre former Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro. The Great Park will include extensive natural areas and open space in addition to recreational, educational, and cultural uses.

The Canyon model shows the placement of the Bridge of Seven Turns which will allow pedestrians to look down on the fern grotto on the slopes and rock outcrops with water seeps. It’s one of the ways to traverse the Canyon in addition to the trails on the sides and at the bottom. Modifications to parts of the bridges will attract Mexican free tail bats. Although some people are afraid of bats, they eat mosquitoes, which will, in turn, prevent West Nile virus.

The Great Park Design Studio is a multi-disciplinary master design team that includes ecologists, landscape architects, civil engineers, and urban planners. “We have a daily, intense collaboration across many design disciplines. A special feature of the Great Park is how ecology and sustainability are totally integrated across all aspects of the landscape,” said Dr. Steven Handel.

Sandy washes create habitats for horned lizards, legless lizards and plants that prefer more porous soils, as well as insects that prefer open habitats such as harvester ants. Horned larks and Kildeer are birds who also occupy these areas.

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“Many of the smaller vertebrates and things they eat need very specific habitats. Small features or microhabitats are critical for lizards or ground squirrels and should also provide the insects they eat,” says Milan Mitrovich, Senior Wildlife Biologist. Part of the work of Design Studio is to create these little bumps and mounds, rock piles and twig heaps, fallen logs and sandy washes that are the life lines for the lizards and all the other local flora and fauna that are being invited to move into the park permanently. They are already starting to reserve all the rocks and deadwood that are being pulled out during the construction phase. However, the team also wants to give them style and design. Mia Lehrer’s staff is working hard on creating a venue that will mesh art and science.

“Agua-Chinon will be natural and only have seasonal flows,” says Handel. “The Canyon stream will be constructed and they’ll add all the elements, arroyo chub, speckled dace, a suite of aquatic insects, beetles, flys, mayflys dragon flys, diving beetles, western toad, California tree frog, pacific tree frog, two striped garter snake, frogs, and pacific southwestern pond turtle. Invertebrates are good dispersers and will colonize on their own. Others we’ll have to bring in. Some may come in from Agua-Chinon or the wildlife corridor.

The Great Park Wildlife Corridor will be closed to the public, although there will be overpasses allowing people to look down on the plant and animal communities. Underpasses have been built at the northern end of the park so wildlife can move through to Agua Chinon. Tunnels go under the interstate on the southern end into the Irvine Ranch undeveloped open space, which is held in easement by the Nature Conservancy.

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“Just as any good landscape architect will tell you the finished site should look as good if not better ten years later,” says Handel. “As ecologists we want all the plants and animals there and have even more 10 years later. Through time, the living richness of the Great Park will grow and grow. It’s not going to be just what we bring in ourselves either. Birds will bring seeds, and we’ll repay them with tasty insects and a great place to live and nest.

“It so great to be surrounded by other professionals. The Great Park is a public space that will serve people. Biologists can’t do anything without people. That’s what is acceptable to public officials. Once they see that it’s lovely, then they learn the value of nature in ecological services.”

The challenge for Handel is working daily with the engineers and landscape architects and meshing their two perspectives so the physical beauty will be there but also bring about the natural beauty of the area and its denizens.

“An enormous salad bar is being created—no sushi—we want the native animals of Orange County to all have a favorite selection available and a place and a time at the Great Park,” says Handel. “That drove our decisions regarding providing soil spots that are wet, dry, sandy or clay. The more variety we can provide on the physical side the more variety we’ll get in wildlife.”

The spines of Opuntia, or Cactus Scrub, are definitely on the Great Park Guest List. They deter numerous predators from the breeding and roosting nests that cactus wrens construct in these species. The coastal cactus wren has been proposed for federal listing as a threatened species. Its preferred habitat is dense coastal sage scrub 0.3 - 1.8m in height with patches of Opuntia cactus. The coastal cactus wren is predominately an insectivore foraging in vegetation and on the ground for a variety of insects including caterpillars, moths, and grasshoppers.

The process required to achieve all the goals of the park is often complex, however. “We all have to constantly check each other’s interpretation of this restoration,” says Mia Lehrer. “Having access available to users while restoration activities are going on at the same time often puts the activities in conflict with each another. You’re always having to be mindful of the other disciplines’ priorities, whether it’s engineering, or habitat restoration, or the landscape architect’s role as the multi-disciplinarian who filters all the requirements and then puts onto the land the practical solutions.

“When you’re doing a restoration, you eventually want people to come and visit, and observe, and appreciate, so chances are that you need to let things grow in. You need to let the restorations achieve a balance before you get people tromping all around, disturbing the newly planted areas.”

And it isn’t just the access issues that must be meshed into the whole restoration. “It’s the same issue with the lighting,” says Lehrer. “There are issues of access and security. The goals of the Fire Department and/or the security forces are to keep people safe, but that’s not always compatible with a habitat. The question then becomes, at what point do you make certain areas inaccessible at night so you’re not lighting parts of the park that need to be dark for habitat requirements.

“You have to calibrate and make some decisions. What is perhaps a priority for one professional may not mesh with the priorities of another. That means that ecologists are getting educated about the parameters of landscape architects and vice versa. The lighting consultants are trying to be innovative with their solutions. It means everyone is trying to work together to make sure things are balanced. Dawn to dusk access is what other parks do—Griffith Park for example—for habitat and safety reasons.

“However, you can also have a situation where you open the park for certain occasions, such as at the Observatory or the Greek theater—or open during the event season but not be open at night otherwise. We have the ability to use new technology for low level lighting and being dark sky compliant. Our goal is to have the least light pollution.

“I think it’s really a question of being open minded about the goals of the different professionals. The goals of a very successful habitat restoration project are a little different from the goals of the landscape architects or certainly the users. However, all of them should reflect the community at large. Some segments want a pure restoration with less access by people. At the same time, there are many who just want to jog, stargaze, and come through when they’d like to. But it’s a huge park so you can have all that—some areas can be more accessible that others—even during the day in terms of restoration. If you want a successful patch of a particular type of flora, you might want to place a path around the flora so it will establish well. You can leave two or three acres so you can make sure that a particular community of plants is really restoring itself.

“We sit there looking at the Bosque, or Promenade of the Senses or Botanical Garden, and say, this is an amazing opportunity, and it’s fun. This cross-fertilization of consultants all getting together every week or at least once a month and have working sessions and larger group that gets together once a month. We all bring to the table things we’ve worked on all month. We discuss how things are progressing and how its impacting “your work.”

Consultants are working on the best location for the solar arrays and the solar arrays becoming part of the shade armadas, while at the same time you’re discussing how to make this the most sustainable park ever.

And the Great Park truly will be a great big beautiful buffet—for people, too. Along with design, the team is also deciding what kind of food they will serve. “We are choosing products that are biodegradable and friendly to the environment,” says Lehrer, “plus growing food for our own restaurants and serving lemonade from our own citrus groves. Children are going to discover that food doesn’t come from boxes in supermarkets. There will be a restaurant in the botanical garden that will have a year round homegrown buffet—and that will also bring the whole park alive.

Partial Critter Guest List

Wood rat

Wood rats are commonly called Pack Rats or Trade Rats because they collect various objects and bits of material to deposit in, or use in the construction of, their nests. They are especially fond of small, bright, shiny objects which they will readily confiscate. It is a popular superstition that the Woodrat always leaves a replacement that is of equal value. In fact, while carrying one trophy, the rat may see another that is more attractive, and so puts down the first to pick up the second, since it can carry only one item at a time.

The Woodrat is most vulnerable when out foraging for food, at which times a coyote, fox, snake or owl may prey upon it.

Primarily nocturnal and vegetarian, desert Woodrats survive on a diet of spiny cactus, yucca pods, bark, berries, pinyon nuts, seeds and any available green vegetation. They rely on succulent plants for their water, since they do not have the refined metabolic and water conservation capabilities of Pocket Mice and Kangaroo Rats. They are one of the few animals that can navigate with impunity between cactus spines to feed on the juicy pads. In the deserts, nests are often constructed in or around cactus The nest provides both shelter from extremes of desert temperatures and protection from predators by using cactus pads and cactus spines in the construction. Such construction methods help keep the nest much cooler than the surrounding desert floor in summer, while helping retain the animals’ body heat in winter.

Long-tailed Weasel

The Long-tailed Weasel’s range extends from southern Canada through most of the United States to Mexico, Central America and the northern parts of South America. It is generally found in open or semi-open habitats near water.

Like most weasels, Long-tailed Weasels mainly eat rodents, their slender bodies enabling them to pursue their prey into their burrows. They are most active at night but are sometimes seen during the day. They are highly solitary, and their home ranges do not overlap with another member of the species of the same sex (though each male’s home range may include several females’ home ranges). Their young are born helpless, but by 56 days are able to catch prey independently. They are able to climb trees and are also good swimmers.

California Legless Lizard

The California Legless Lizard is a small slender lizard with no legs, a shovel-shaped snout, smooth shiny scales, and a blunt tail. Sometimes confused for a snake, (which has no eyelids) on close observation the presence of eyelids is apparent when this lizard blinks. Dorsal coloration varies from metallic silver, beige, dark brown, to black. Ventral coloration varies from whitish to bright yellow. Typically there is a dark line along the back and several thin stripes between scale rows along the sides where the dorsal and ventral colors meet, but variants occur.

This lizard is most often found in moist warm loose soil with plant cover or in sparsely vegetated areas of beach dunes, chaparral, pine-oak woodlands, desert scrub, sandy washes, and stream terraces with sycamores, cottonwoods, or oaks. Leaf litter under trees and bushes in sunny areas and dunes stabilized with bush lupine and mock heather often indicate a suitable habitat.

Orange-Throated Whiptail lizard

The orange-throated whiptail lizard is a California species of concern. It has specific soil requirements and is dependent upon a single species of termite as its principal food source. The orange-throated whiptail inhabits a variety of plant community types that thrive in loose, well-drained soils including chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and coastal strand vegetation (oak woodland, grassland and riparian communities in Orange County). Whiptail populations are closely associated with their principal food source, western subterranean termites and the habitat that supports them making up 85 percent of the whiptail’s diet. Among the few places these termites are found is Irvine California, site of the Great Park. Perennial shrub cover is important for adults, hatchlings, and juveniles. Preferred cover species include Eriogonum spp. and Salvia. Females deposit their eggs in thick patches of annuals and grasses. This cover type may afford the best protection for hatchlings or provide the structure that supports food of the appropriate size.

Western Subterranean Termite

Western Subterranean Termite [Reticulitermes Hesperus], only found in California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and only found in Orange County in Irvine, the site of the Great Park.

Side-blotched Lizard

The Side-blotched Lizard is common on the Pacific coast of North America, from Washington to western Texas and NW Mexico. It has a peculiar evolutionary strategy following the pattern of the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, with 3 types of males existing each of which applies a different technique to acquire mates. The Side-blotched Lizard is one of the most abundant and commonly observed lizards in the West’s drier regions. This lizard is one of the first to appear in the spring and last to hibernate in the late fall. Mostly ground dwellers, Side-blotched Lizards will climb boulders, logs or rock cairns (piles of rocks that are often used as trail markers) for vantage points, basking sites or to express their territoriality. These and other lizards do “push-ups” which can signify territorial or mating behavior.

Side-blotched Lizards prey on a variety of creatures: ants, ant lion larvae, flies, mosquitoes, damselflies, dragonflies, beetles, bees, aphids, caterpillars, ticks, scorpions and spiders. These lizards, in turn, are preyed upon by larger lizards, like the collared or leopard lizard, as wells as by snakes and birds.

Horned Toad Lizards

Horned Toad Lizards are sometimes referred to as “Horned Toads” or “Horny Toads”, but they are not toads. This species of lizard has a distinctive flat-body with one row of fringed scales down the sides. Desert horned lizards prey primarily on ants, but are also known to prey on other slow-moving insects such as beetles, as well as spiders and some plant material. They can often be found in the vicinity of ant hills, where they sit and wait for ants to pass by. When they find an area of soft sand, they usually shake themselves vigorously, throwing sand over their backs and leaving only their head exposed. This allows them to hide from predators and await their unsuspecting prey. They are generally a gentle species, but have been known to try to push their cranial spines into the hand while held. If provoked, they hiss and threaten to bite. When excited, they puff themselves up with air, making themselves look bigger. If spotted near a bush, they will dash into it in an attempt to find cover from any threat. If threatened, they have been known to squirt blood from their eyes as far as 5 feet.

Ring Tailed Cat

The Ring Tailed Cat eats bugs and mice, and is food for Coyote or hawk. In Limestone Whiting Ranch, they’ve shown tracks lies adjacent to El Toro panhandle. Found one west of Coal canyon. Insectivores. Related to the raccoon. Omnivorous, small mammals. The ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) is a mammal of the raccoon family, native to North America. The ankle joint is flexible and able to rotate over 180 degrees, a trait helping make it an agile climber. Their considerable tail provides balance for negotiating narrow ledges and limbs, even allowing them to reverse directions by performing a cartwheel. Ringtails also can ascend narrow passages by stemming (pressing all feet on one wall and their back against the other or pressing both right feet on one wall and both left feet on the other), and wider cracks or openings by ricocheting between the walls.. The ring tailed cat is omnivorous, and will feed on animal matter like spiders, scorpions, centipedes, grasshoppers, crickets, rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, small birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads, and fruits like persimmons, hackberries, juniper, and mistletoe.


Additional Critters on the Guest list:


  • Red tailed HawksRed Shouldered Hawks,Cactus WrensCalifornia Gnat CatchersBlack Phoebe, Say’s PhoebeCalifornia QuailMourning DoveAnna’s HummingbirdCassin’s King birdGreat EgretAmerican Wigeon – water fowlNorthern PintailWhite Tailed Kite
  • Owls

Partial Plant & Tree Guest List

As a botanist and an ecologist, Steve Handel is going to make sure the site will be as alive as possible so that both seasonally and over the years it will grow, change and sustain itself. There needs to be a mosaic of plants as well as repetition of the reproductive cycle.

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June 26, 2019, 12:05 pm PDT

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