About the Robin's Nest Property.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority completed its acquisition of the 51.4-acre Robin's Nest RV campground property at 8237 Soledad Canyon Road in 2018. Bisected by the railroad, the property adjoins the Angeles National Forest on the south and other MRCA-owned property on the northwest (known as Bobcat Canyon). The Robin's Nest property includes what the MRCA has called "perhaps the most significant section of year-round natural flow" of the Santa Clara River. It is home to the endangered unarmored threespine stickleback and several other native species.
MRCA is a joint-powers authority headed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Its purpose is to manage public land and provide stewardship of wildlife habitat.
While the earlier history of the Robin's Nest area goes back to train wrecks out of Ravenna, its modern history starts in 1962 when Ralph and Toni Helfer established Africa U.S.A. on a portion of the 600-acre riverfront property they owned in Soledad Canyon. In January 1969 the wild animal park and "movie animal" preserve was flooded out. The Helfers moved Africa U.S.A. to higher ground in the mountains 3 miles south of Piru, and other animal handlers and trainers started to open compounds in the area the Helfers left behind.
That's where things start to get a little confusing.
Animal Compounds Dot the Canyon.
The first on scene were two Hollywood taxidermists, brothers Wayne and Robert Dougherty, who purchased the Africa U.S.A. property. Wayne Dougherty eventually moved into a 3,987-square-foot house that was built there in 1955. (The lot with the house, 8235 Soledad, abutted but was not part of the MRCA's 2018 Robin's Nest acquisition. As of 2020, the 5.5-acre lot is privately owned.)
The Doughertys sought county approval to recreate a wild-animal compound in Soledad Canyon. They assumed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be turning the Santa Clara River into a concrete flood-control channel, as the Army Corps had done to the L.A. River in the 1940s. (It didn't.) The county initially said "no," and the Doughertys withdrew their menagerie plan.
Meanwhile, two other brothers who had been animal handlers for Africa U.S.A., Gary and Steve Martin (not the actor), apparently never vacated the premises. They were living at the east end of the Doughertys' 600-acre property near the Soledad crossover. By October 1970, the Martins had purchased the 40-acre parcel where they were living and sought county approval for an animal compound. They, too, thought "a deep flood control channel" at that location would protect them from flooding. They had better luck with the county; the Martins' "Wild Country Animal Ranch" was up and running by the middle of 1971.
Not so lucky was Fred Roesch of Panorama City, who sought to create a combination animal menagerie and RV park to be called "Little Africa" at 8237 Soledad Canyon Road, adjacent to Wayne Dougherty's residence. He incorporated as "Little Africa Recreation Park Inc." and evidently leased the property from Dougherty, because 8237 Soledad remained in the Dougherty family until 2011.
In September 1971, the L.A. County Zoning Board approved Roesch's plan for a 100-space RV park with a snack bar, store, dance hall and lake for swimming. But as it had told Dougherty, it said "no" to the animals, for fear of future flooding at that location. Roesch's 10-year campground permit was to come up for renewal in 1981, at which time the county would assess whether the RV park was impairing the "aesthetic qualities of the tree-lined property" and whether "sewage from the trailers" was leaching into the groundwater.
Next came animal trainers Clyde Totten and Ron Oxley with a movie animal rental location at 7433 Soledad, a mile or two down the road, just west of the Martins' property. The county said "yes" in February 1972. Oxley boarded his animals at the Martins' compound.
At this time, film producer Noel Marshall wasn't getting anywhere with his pleas to the county to let him establish a compound in Towsley Canyon for all the lions that were taking over — and occasionally escaping from — the house in Sherman Oaks he shared with his wife, actress Tippi Hedren, and Hedren's daughter from a previous marriage, Melanie Griffith.
Relief came in August 1972 when the county gave Marshall the green light to board his animals at the Martins' compound — which Marshall then purchased. Marshall and Hedren had worked with all of these people, including Ralph Helfer and Steve Martin; Ron Oxley became a valuable asset as the Hollywood couple worked on their movie, "Roar." (A decade later, Marshall was out of the picture, and Hedren renamed her property "Shambala.")
By 1973, Wayne Dougherty was living in the house at 8235 Soledad, and somewhere along the way, he must have obtained a permit for an animal training facility there.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, one or more of the compounds in the canyon provided large animals to the Little Africa RV park to be part of the experience. Contrary to popular assumptions, there is no indication the entity named "Little Africa" owned any of the animals. During a 1973 flood, for example, The Signal reported on "the Little Africa animal compound, only about a mile away from the trailer park" — which is backward. Little Africa is the trailer park/campground. As late as 1984, when a child was bitten by a lion cub at the RV park, The Signal reported: "The cub is from Little Africa, a privately owned menagerie located near the campground."
In 1978, Little Africa was under new management. Paul and Betty Stehouwer ran newspaper advertisements listing what they had to offer: a "swimming beach, shade trees, recreation hall, snack bar, store, hookups and water." Fred Roesch was still the boss behind the scenes. The Stehouwers operated Little Africa until the fall of 1981 when Roesch's 10-year county permit expired. The company advertised a "quitting business sale" and got rid of its fixtures and inventory.
New Owners, New Name.
In late 1982-early 1983, Jerry and Robbin Beran restarted the RV park as The Robin's Nest Recreational Resort. They hosted community events there, borrowed animals (see the "biting" incident above), and like other RV parks in the region (e.g., the Oasis, Thousand Trails), they catered to both short-term campers and long-term residents. At some point, the Berans also purchased the underlying 51.4 acres of land at 8237 Soledad.
Wayne Dougherty lived next door (to the west) at 8235 Soledad until his death in 1996. In 2011, the Beran Family Trust bought 8235 Soledad from Dougherty's estate. They kept it until 2018 when they sold it to a real-estate investor.
Even before they bought Dougherty's home, however, they had sold their 51.4-acre Little Africa/Robin's Nest property to Young W. and Ok S. Song back in 2001. The Songs carved a new swimming pool out of the river.
There was a problem. In 2003, when Young Song filed for permits to grade the wetlands and impound the river to create the swimming pool, a flurry of regulatory agencies — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game and the Regional Water Quality Control Board — all said "no." He did it anyway. A subsequent inspection by the EPA and Army Corps found that Song had "filled approximately 2.2 acres of the river and its adjacent wetlands" and "compromised the river's natural flow and endangered species habitat." In February 2006 he was ordered to remove "illegal structures" and restore the river — or face daily fines.
At that point, the Songs wanted out. In the fall of 2008, they approached the City of Santa Clarita, which had been buying open space for preservation at the time, but the Great Recession of 2008 was setting in, and no deal was reached.
Then came the 2010 Briggs Fire and the 2016 Sand Fire, which "combined to burn the majority of the property and left behind fire-damaged debris that threatens water quality and habitat." The property went into default, and two months after the Sand Fire, a pair of local Realtors, Daniel Robles and Jon Raich, picked it up for $299,531.
Preservation and Restoration.
A fair-market appraisal came in at $2.5 million. The MRCA worked with a nonprofit partner, the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land (TPL), to buy the property. The need was considered urgent. According to TPL, "The owners are willing to sell due to the damage sustained in the Sand Fire but are fully prepared to develop the property if a conservation purchase is not successful."
TPL went after the funding — $1 million from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's share of the 2014 state water bond (Proposition 1); $1 million from the state Wildlife Conservation Board; and $500,000 from L.A. County's Proposition A park bond funds. TPL then cleared the title to the property, took ownership of it in June 2018, and deeded it over to MRCA.
Since that time, the MRCA and the Trust for Public Land have worked together to finance the clearance of the derelict, fire-damaged structures on the property and restore the river habitat. (Relevant documents are attached at the end of the .pdf above.)
Research assistance provided by Tricia Lemon Putnam and Joan Oxman.
— Leon Worden 2020
1. Memorandum to MRCA board from Joseph T. Edmiston, November 7, 2018.
2. Records of title.
3. The Signal, February 23, 1970.
4. The Signal, October 7, 1970.
6. Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1971.
7. Grant deed recorded June 3, 2011.
8. The Signal, September 27, 1971.
9. The Signal, February 25, 1972.
10. Hedren, Tippi, with Lindsay Harrison: "Tippi." New York: William Morrow (HarperCollins Publishers), 2016, pg. 101.
11. The Signal, August 28, 1972.
12. Hedren, ibid., pg. 125.
13. The Signal, October 31, 1973.
14. The Signal, April 18, 1980.
15. The Signal, February 12, 1973.
16. The Signal, July 29, 1984.
17. The Signal, July 26, 1978.
18. The Signal, June 28, 1978.
19. California Secretary of State. Roesch is still listed as the agent for service of process on the last Statement of Information filed for Little Africa Recreation Park Inc. on November 10, 1982.
20. The Signal, October 14, 1981.
21. The Signal, January 7, 1983.
22. Records of title.
23. Public records available through Ancestry.com, accessed in May 2020.
24. Grant deed recorded June 3, 2011.
25. The buyer was T&A Investment Group LLC (Areg Abramian), a rental property management company. It is the current owner as of 2020.
26. Records of title.
27. The Signal, February 13, 2006.
28. Santa Clarita City Council: Minutes of Special Meeting, December 9, 2008.
29. Memorandum to MRCA board from Joseph T. Edmiston, January 9, 2019.
30. Records of title and Statement of Information filed October 26, 2015. For the transaction, Robles and Raich were doing business as R Squared Holdings LLC, which transfered the property to Robin's Nest Holdings LLC, managed by Jon Raich.
31. The Trust for Public Land: Robin's Nest Acquisition Project, November 2016.
32. Memorandum to SMMC board from Joseph T. Edmiston, December 12, 2016.
33. The Trust for Public Land: Robin's Nest Acquisition Project, November 2016.
34. The property was deeded to TPL by Robin's Nest Holdings LLC on June 25, 2018.
Download public documents here. See file.