Don Mullally helps plant a tree during a public event in nearby Mentryville, circa 1996. Click to enlarge.
Santa Clarita Valley officials and environmental activists recently recognized the contributions of biologist and naturalist Don Mullally, naming the Towsley Canyon Loop the Don Mullally Trail.
Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste, along with representatives from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Sierra Club, SCOPE and others participated in the naming ceremony Saturday, Sept. 27.
Mullally, 85, was present to receive a plaque from Weste.
"I'm really excited to see (Mullally) and all his mapping and biology resource work be recognized," Weste said. "We had to map the entire 8,000 acres to get all the biological reports together and identifying plants and wildlife in the area."
Mullally's work was crucial in the area's fight against the siting of a garbage dump in the canyon, officials said.
Weste praised Mullally's intelligence and work in the field, telling stories about how the two worked to help create trails in the area and how Mullally's efforts were critical to the preservation of open space in the region.
Mullally's biological studies helped outsiders recognize the value of the area's wildlife, validating its significance and pristine nature, Weste said.
Ultimately, state officials deemed the area where the trail lies too small for a state park, but the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy joined in the preservation effort, and with support from Santa Clarita city officials, the land was eventually set aside as open space.
Weste shared a humorous anecdote about the pair's work together, noting a time when the two were charting trails up a mountain into the evening and lost track of time. They ended up rappelling down the hills together one night.
A 1995 L.A. Times report by reporter Myron Levin on Chevron's then-pending sale of 3,000 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy — containing the area that would become the basis of the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park, which included Mentryville and the site of California's first commercial oil well, as well as several of the canyons mentioned — quoted Mullally on the significance of the terrain.
"One of the important things about the Santa Clarita Woodlands is, no one lives in the Santa Clarita Woodlands," Mullally told The Times. "This is all wilderness." And with flat areas for walking and picnicking, as well as steep slopes for more ambitious hikers, "this is the kind of park (that) is for everybody."
The city of Santa Clarita now has 6,192.5 acres of open space it wholly owns, and another 1,869 acres it owns jointly with agencies such as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, through the city's Open Space Preservation District.
The Conservancy was created by the Legislature in 1980 "to acquire land in Southern California with the main goal of forming an extended system of urban, rural and river parks, open space, trails and wildlife habitats, and making those areas easily accessible to the public."
Joe Edmiston, the founding executive director, was a mentor to Weste and another integral figure in the preservation of the Santa Clarita Valley's open spaces, Weste said.
Mullally has been involved in the preservation and documentation of the area since 1984, when he worked at O'Melveny Park in Granada Hills, said local Sierra Club member Sandra Cattell.
That's when he became involved with preserving wilderness in the area through his work involving the Santa Susana Mountains. Mullally has published numerous papers on the wildlife of the region.
"It was just splendid to have his work recognized," Cattell said, also giving recognition to the Conservancy-run Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
The Towsley Canyon open space "wouldn't be there if not for Don Mullally," Cattell said. "It would be a dump."
Further reading: Don Mullally obituary, 2020.
About Ed Davis Park at Towsley Canyon
Ed Davis Park in Towsley Canyon is named for Edward M. Davis, the Santa Clarita Valley's state senator from 1980 to 1992. Davis spearheaded legislative efforts to preserve land in Towsley Canyon in order to prevent the county of Los Angeles from siting a landfill just outside the new city of Santa Clarita's (est. 1987) western border.
In 1989, Davis sponsored legislation enabling the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to purchase a 145-acre parcel off of The Old Road, at the mouth of Towsley Canyon, known as Rivendale. Upon the close of escrow, it immediately opened to the public as a park. Included in the sale was a Spanish-style stucco and tile-roofed home built in 1974 by Rivendale equestrian ranch owners Jerry and Dorothy Arnett, which the Conservancy renamed "Towsley Lodge."
At the time, the Conservancy and its allies — at Santa Clarita City Hall and elsewhere — envisioned the acquisition as the first piece of an eventual conservation area spanning several thousand acres of Towsley, Pico, East, Rice and neighboring canyons, to be known collectively as the Santa Clarita Woodlands.
To that end, the Conservancy next spent $5.2 million on a strategic 22-acre strip of land that sat between The Old Road and the coveted Woodlands property, most of which was owned by Chevron.
At the time, Chevron, previously known as Standard Oil Co. of California, was deciding what to do with its nonperforming oil properties. By purchasing 22 "gateway" acres, the Conservancy would physically block any plans Chevron might have to expand access to the property and build homes.
On Oct. 23, 1992, upon the 75-year-old senator's impending retirement from public life, the Conservancy renamed its now-roughly 170-acre park for its legislative champion.
Davis and the Conservancy were somewhat strange bedfellows. The onetime Los Angeles police chief (1969–1978) was known as an outspoken conservative and was not considered friendly to environmentalists.
"I'm not for environmentalists," Davis said at the 1992 ceremony, as he donned a park ranger's hat given him by the Conservancy's equally unreserved executive director, Joseph T. Edmiston.
"I am for conservationists," Davis said, conjuring visions of Teddy Roosevelt. "I believe in conserving nature for the use of man."
The dream of a mutli-thousand-acre Santa Clarita Woodlands Park became reality just three years later when Chevron decided to divest all or most of its nonperforming assets. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority — a joint powers agency led by Edmiston's Conservancy — seized the opportunity to acquire 3,035 acres of Chevron property for $4.9 million.
Actually, the deal was structured as a 2,184-acre purchase, with the transfer of 851 acres in Pico Canyon — including the historic Mentryville oil town — recorded as a gift for tax purposes. Chevron valued the total acreage at $7.3 million.
The one hiccup was that after spending $5.2 million on 22 acres, the Conservancy was out of cash. So another one of the MRCA member agencies — the city of Santa Clarita — stepped up to the plate with $2 million in general-fund money for the majority of the 50-percent down payment (of the $4.9 million) that Chevron demanded. The balance would be paid with voter-approved 1992 park bond money earmarked for the Conservancy.
In exchange, the city of Santa Clarita acquired 53 prime-location acres of the Conservancy's 170-acre park property — the acreage at the entrance to Towsley Canyon directly off of The Old Road. (The city also picked up about 7 additional acres with 1992 Proposition A park bond money.) Today the 60-acre city property is known as Rivendale Park and Open Space.
Just as the name Rivendale has returned, the story itself came full circle Aug. 12, 2002, when Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich dedicated 507 adjacent acres to the MRCA. Antonovich required the former property owner, landfill operator Browning-Ferris Industries, to hand over the acreage in exchange for a permit to expand its Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Granada Hills.
Today, the 507-acre Michael D. Antonovich Open Space Preserve connects the MRCA's Rice and East canyon properties with the City of L.A.'s O'Melveny Park to the south and brings the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park to roughly 4,000 acres.
Further reading: The Story of Rivendale by Sabina Fetter.