A former oil drilling site, Banning Ranch is nearing transformation into a nature preserve
Once a full-scale oil drilling site, Banning Ranch, the largest remaining piece of undeveloped Southern California coastline, is inching towards preservation. For decades, a number of conservationist groups have rallied to protect the 401-acre property in Newport Beach from development, chipping away at the $97 million needed for the Trust for Public Land to acquire it. Now, years of hard work and waiting are paying off, as a vote by the Wildlife Conservation Board on May 26 approved the remaining funds.
Besides being the final large piece of coastal real estate in the region to defend from real estate development, Banning Ranch has drawn the attention of conservationists because of its rare species’ habitat. Despite nearly eight decades of drilling on the land, native wildlife has persisted, and conservationists anticipate that these populations will flourish after their ecosystems are cleaned up. Species include burrowing owls, which used to live on Banning Ranch year-round but are currently only migratory, and fairy shrimp, which used to live in vernal pool complexes across the Southern California coast but now have very few of these ecosystems left.
Nearly 23 years ago, Terry Welsh, president of Banning Ranch Conservancy (BRC), formed a Sierra Club task force and began holding meetings to save the ranch from development. Welsh founded BRC in 2008 and, since then, the group has teamed up with a number of organizations, including the Trust for Public Land, Native American groups, and other local environmentalists. In 2011, the city approved development plans for Banning Ranch but advocacy groups including BRC joined forces in a lawsuit, which won a unanimous state Supreme Court decision in 2017.
If the property is acquired by the Trust for Public Land, the current owners, Newport Banning Ranch, will be responsible for cleaning it up. There will still be some oil drilling on Banning Ranch, as the owner can sell mineral rights separately from property rights, but it will be concentrated to a much smaller area. “Considering oil pumps were all over Banning Ranch for 80 years, we’re happy as can be that they’re gonna be consolidated to a tiny area,” says Welsh. The vast majority of this land will become a public park and nature preserve, which will be open to visitors a couple years after acquisition, Welsh estimates.
Even though they will not be responsible for the cleanup of Banning Ranch, conservationists know that preservation will be a long haul. “We’re gonna have to shift gears but work just as hard,” says Welsh.
As decades-long dreams for Banning Ranch to become a preserved public coastal land near a reality, Welsh reflects on what it took to get here and what it will take to march forward. When the efforts drag on, Welsh remembers the truism, “The world belongs to those who show up.”