Jim & Diane Southwell
Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates & Foundation

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, June 12, 2005
(Television interview conducted May 3, 2005)

Diane & Jim Southwell     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Jim and Diane Southwell. Jim is president and Diane is a volunteer with the Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: When you drive out to the Placerita Canyon Nature Center and Park, you see a sign that says state park and county park. Which is it?

Jim Southwell: Both. It actually is a state park. Many years ago, back in the 40s, it was sold to the state of California by Frank Walker. It was originally their homestead property there. The county came in subsequently, many years later, and wanted to operate a nature center and a county park and had an agreement with the state to operate it, which they do to this day.

Signal: So the state owns the property, but the county staffs it?

Jim: The county has been staffing it with their county (Department of) Parks and Recreation personnel. And that's supplemented by a volunteer organization there, which adds many, many hours of volunteer work to get the work done there.

Signal: The last three or four years, during the state budget crisis, there was a real dispute between the county and state over whose responsibility it was to operate the park. What ultimately happened?

Jim: We run into this on a periodic standpoint. Every once in a while, when we have these conflicts on budget, both at the county and state level, we become a political football at the Placerita Nature Center.
    The county wants to give it back to the state, saying, "We can no longer afford to operate it." The state says, "But you have an agreement to operate it." And so they come out and they measure the windows for boarding it up, and they get the public very, very excited at the fact that they're going to lose one of their recreational facilities. So that puts pressure on the state, supposedly.
    Ultimately it puts a lot of pressure on the volunteer organizations, which — all we care about is staying open, so that we can serve the public and the children who come to that park.

Signal: What do the volunteer Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates do?

Diane Southwell Diane Southwell: Well, so, so much of it affects people when they're there. The docents lead tours for elementary students, second through sixth grade. There are (10,000) a year, approximately, who go through. And we see how it changes lives.
    Jim has come home and told me stories about kids from central Los Angeles who ... are afraid to get off the bus because they've never been out in a forest like that. They've never seen a tree that didn't have blacktop around it. And they go into the Nature Center and they have a live show where they actually see snakes and tarantulas and a number of birds. And they're so involved in it that we would just feel like it would be such a shame to lose that part of it. Because we see how it changes people's lives.
    From our own point of view, we're three generations who have enjoyed the park. When I was busy in real estate, our youngest son would say, "Mom, let's go for a picnic." And I would say, "I don't have time. Can't do it." So he'd say, "I'll do it." He'd get a picnic basket together with a loaf of bread and the peanut butter and the jelly and make some lemonade and brownies and we'd be over there on a long summer evening with the dog, walking the trails and looking around and going into the Nature Center. A lot of people tell us that they've had the same experiences. It would be just so sad to see the Nature Center itself shut down. And that's why we stay so involved with it.

Signal: What makes Placerita unique? How is it different from Towsley Canyon Park?

Jim: Like Towsley, we're one of the last canyons out here in Santa Clarita which is considered to be pristine. The main difference is the type of programs that we put on at the county park versus what the (Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority) does at Towsley Canyon.
    We have organized programs in terms of school groups coming in. ... We have 10,000 children come in on school buses. Usually they come in on busloads of 60, sometimes two busloads of 120 at one time. We put on a two-hour program for them — about an hour in the classroom where do a little discussion on the food web chain and how that works, kind of with an amusing felt-board presentation; and then we give them the last half-hour, which they're all waiting for, is our live animal show. We're one of the very few open areas where we have live animals that we care for, and we're able to bring them out. We have our raptors, which would consist of our great horned owl, our barn owl; we also have a large red-tailed hawk we bring out. And we have our ... American kestrel, a nice little bird (but) very, very fierce if you ever see it eat a mouse.

Signal: The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy stepped in temporarily to run the park during the budget crisis, but if the county is operating it again, are you guys out of the woods?

Jim: Oh, not at all. In fact, going back to the steps when the county was going to close the park down, Supervisor Antonovich stepped in and made arrangements with the Santa Monica (Mountains) Conservancy to come in and operate the park for six months. They in turn ran out of money and said, "We don't want it anymore; can't afford to have it." At that point, the volunteer organization got a meeting with Supervisor Antonovich and said, "Look, the volunteers put in about 90 percent of the hours that are spent here. We spend $35,000 a year out of our own pocket (that) we raise in order to supplement what the county has been doing. Let us keep the park open. We have a treasury we're willing to spend down until you can resolve this problem, but please do not close this park."
    We came to an agreement where we have a private-public relationship with the county in which the volunteers actually pay the county in order to have a supervisor there. We have to raise the money for that — but we know we have to have a supervisor there — and we raise the money for that and we supplement the rest of it. Supervisor Antonovich sweetened the pot somewhat in that he said that (out of) his discretionary fund, he'd also pay for a maintenance man being there. But this is temporary...
    In addition, Parks and Recreation came and said, "We'll pick up your overhead" — your utilities, your garbage collection — that sort of thing. And we will also cover you for insurance coverage, which is the most important thing for us. We could never operate the park without having insurance coverage.
    So that is the current situation right now. We've been two years where we've been zero-budgeted in terms of operating expenses there. So we've had to raise about $50,000 every year to keep us open. Next (fiscal) year we're hoping, with the July budget, they will find the money and they will put us in as a line item again in the budget. But that's yet to be seen with the budget negotiations.

Signal: So the volunteers are actually raising money to offset county staff costs? How do you raise the money?

Diane: Nickel and dime at a time. But we have cooperation with the community.
    For instance, all of the animals that are there have been acquired by the volunteers, taken care of by the volunteers, and their food is paid for by the volunteers. And we have a wonderful partner in (the owner of) Pet Adventure in Canyon Country, who provides as much as he possibly can. We have veterinarians who come out and give us almost no-cost service and things like that. And the community is supporting us, too, when they know what our needs are.
    The problem is, we haven't gone out and told enough people about what our needs are. There are a lot of people who say, "Oh, the gate's open; they must have gotten funding for it." So we need to go out and talk to people in the community. We need to go out and get the large donations, not the 50 cents for a cookie. Ultimately we'd like to get a nice endowment so that we can get there and the docents can be doing what they do so well, which is working with the children and the animals. They're not there to raise funds. That's not their program.

Signal: Are the docents paid?

Diane: No, not at all. In a way they're paid. They leave with a smile on their face. They're happy when they're there. They love what they're doing.
    We've got a couple of fellows who are there 20, 40 hours a week because they love it. They love the animals and the children and the people who come in. They all have their special interests in various things they like to do. But that's their pay. They're there because that's what they want to be doing.
    Volunteers are the neatest people — whether it's at the Nature Center or the hospital or anyplace else. They're there because this is something that they want to be doing. They've come to a point in their lives where they can normally donate a little bit of time or a lot of time, and this is what they want to do.

Jim Southwell Jim: One of the volunteer programs we've had for years there is the Boy Scout-Eagle Scouts. They have to put in 100 hours' worth of public service duty in order to get their badge, as you know. And we've (created) a program for them where they can earn their 100 hours there by doing special projects.
    Most of the signs that you see there up in the park — whether it's telling you this is the parking area, or what the hours are at the park — most of those are made by the Eagle Scouts (as) their project.

Signal: Thinking of those signs, many of them burned in the fire that swept through Placerita Canyon last year. So did many of the plants. Have those come back now?

Diane: The signs haven't come back, no. The signs and the benches (are) still burned.

Jim: Those are being replaced slowly.

Signal: We've heard the stories of the firefighters miraculously saving the Nature Center, but what was the extent of the damage?

Jim: The fire came through the total park all the way down to Walker Ranch. The fire didn't actually get stopped until it was in Walker Ranch, which is a camping area in the far east end. Everything was generally burned out except for the structures, which were saved. The Walker Cabin was saved, the Oak of the Golden Dream was saved and the Nature Center was saved. But everything else was pretty well burnt out.
    In fact, it was a great emotional shock to all of us to go back to our beloved park and see it kind of like a moonscape, with nothing but black and white ash everywhere and trees still smoldering.
    But we all know from our training that this was going to be just a transitory period in which we're going to see one of the biggest miracles that you're liable to see, which is the renewal of something when it's been burned out — which is the stage we're in right now. The wildflowers are magnificent this year in all the burned-out areas.

Signal: After the fire came the flood, and the moonscape turned into riverbottom.

Diane: We did have a lot of problems with the flood, too. The road that goes from the parking lot under Placerita Canyon over to the Oak of the Golden Dream — that sidewalk was washed out. We have pictures on our Web site,, that show the water just like a river going under there, totally covering it. And then it washed out that sidewalk.
    So we have work like that that needs to be done, but it has been exciting because all the rocks come down and do a second job on us, and the regrowth now is just so exciting, just to see what is happening. This is a nature center, and this is nature. Many of those seeds haven't germinated for years and years and years, and now the heat from the fire has caused them to germinate. They're getting more sun from when they were covered up before, and it's beautiful. It's just beautiful. And some of the oak trees, which we thought were surely dead, have green little leaves coming out on them. And the crown roots (are) coming up. It's really exciting to see that this is the plan of nature.

Signal: Thanks to the fire, this spring and summer is a better time than normal to see the park.

Jim: It is. We thought people would stay away from the park because of the fires and the rains we've had, but we have had more visitation ... recently than I've seen in past years. On a three-day weekend our parking lot is so full that we actually have to turn people away until there's a space for them to park.

Signal: How do you get there? Do you have to pay to park?

Jim: No. That's one of the things the volunteers did, is — we are not going to be like some of the other park areas and charge for parking. As long as we're raising the money, we kind of set the rules. And there's no parking fee in order to be there.

Diane: To get there, take Highway 14 or Sierra Highway and go east on Placerita Canyon. It's approximately two and a half miles. There's a parking lot there...

Signal: When is the park open?

Jim: It's open seven days a week. Every day except Christmas. Sunup to sundown is when we generally like (to stay open) but right now the volunteers are going to have come up with some money to pay people to open up. Because the county people don't come until 8 o'clock in the morning and they leave at 5:30 (p.m.). And with the summer months and so forth, the park is open sunup to sundown, and much longer than that. People come, but our gates are closed. So we just voted (last month) to pay to have a special service come by, which they will open at sunrise and close it at sunset.

Signal: "We" being —?

Diane: "We" being the Associates. And that would just be the summer hours.

Signal: And now you're looking at ramping up your fund-raising efforts?

Jim: Last year we formed a foundation. It's called the Placerita Nature Center Foundation. Our basic charter is to raise funds for our volunteer organization. The volunteers come there not to be fund-raisers, but to work with children and to love nature and to share that information with people. So we're working with the foundation to try and go out and get the $5,000 donations and the $15,000 donations — things which would allow us to keep the park open on a sustained basis,

Signal: Will you be writing grants?

Jim: We do, and we've delved into that several times. I'm finding that it's a much more difficult thing to find professional grantwriters who will do that, or within your organization, to find people. That's one of our intentions, but we haven't been too successful so far.

Diane: We haven't found the people to do it. We know that the money is there. It's all over the Internet, the books that are out. We know that the money is there, we just have to find out how to do it. And we're such a new foundation where we're having to learn as we go. But we'll learn. We'll get there. We've got a lot of major companies here. I foresee, because of the (history there) — the oil, the borax — I foresee for large corporations to help us.
    I don't know if you know it, but the museum, while it's in the county building, the whole layout of the museum is done by volunteer work. That was docents who put it all up. It needs to be redone, and I'd like to see display of minerals in the area. You've heard the story of the white oil that used to come bubbling up, that still comes bubbling out of the ground, and how the Walkers separated it and put it in their Model A. That's a great opportunity to talk about that mineral and all the oil drilling that's done in the nearby areas. It's a great opportunity to have corporations come in and put up displays on things like that, in addition to other things that are there.

Signal: Tell us the story of the Oak of the Golden Dream.

Diane: You do it, Jim. You do it in the tour every week.

Jim: Well Francisco Lopez, who was what we would call a Californio — these were the people who remained in California after Spain withdrew from Mexico into the Californias — they (had) been granted very large ranchos. In fact, that particular one was Rancho San Francisco, which incorporated all of the Santa Clarita Valley.
    As we tell the children, the legend is that one day (Lopez) left home and his wife told him, "Bring home some wild onions for dinner." It's kind of like telling your dad bring home a quart of milk on your way home from work. So he was up in Placerita Canyon — we know not why, maybe looking after stray cattle. Come noontime, he took his lunch and, as was the custom, he had a siesta.
    I have fun with the kids now, even some of the Spanish kids, because I'll say, "What is a siesta?" And they'll say it's a celebration. And I'll say, "No, no, no. That's a fiesta." So (he had) his siesta there, and the story goes that he had a dream while he was sleeping under this oak tree in the park. And within that dream, he dreamt that he had found gold and had become a very rich man.
    Now, Francisco Lopez was a very educated man. He had gone to the university in Mexico and he had studied mining and minerals. So when he woke up from the dream, he remembered his wife's request, and he looked around and found some wild onions growing. And he pulled the onions out of the ground, and there on the roots were gold flakes. And right away he knew what he was looking at.
    He took that gold down to Los Angeles and it turned out to be very fine gold. And not being able to keep it a secret, hundreds of miners followed later and came up into Placerita Canyon, and for years they were mining gold there. In fact, they took out hundreds of thousands of dollars of gold. And this is was in 1842, a full (six) years before the discovery up in Sacramento at Sutter's Mill.
    It is said that the first gold that was ever minted by the U.S. from California gold came from the gold that was in Placerita Canyon.

Signal: That would also have been the first gold rush.

Jim: It would have been the first gold rush.

Diane: When we first moved to Sand Canyon in the 70s, driving up that two-lane almost dirt road on Placerita Canyon, we used to see people gold-panning up there. And there were enough of them that you knew that they were finding something. And then of course, when it became a park, it became illegal. But we still have to chase people out of there, because they're still trying to find that gold.

Signal: With the really strong connection to California history, do you find it unusual that the state isn't more enthusiastic about wanting to operate the park?

Diane: Yes.

Jim: Somewhat. Actually a number of years ago, the county had an arrangement with the state, that if the state gave them the Placerita park, the county would give the state another piece of property that they wanted, which is over on the coast. Now, the state did take over that property over on the coast, but the transition was never made officially in terms of Placerita park.

Signal: Considering the enthusiasm — or lack thereof — of the county and state in terms of operating the park in the long term, do you foresee the day when the Associates or the community take over the park and run it?

Jim: That is a long-term vision we have, much in the model of Descanso Gardens. Descanso Gardens, people think, is a private park, but it is in fact a county park. And they had a similar situation around 15 years ago. The county wanted to close it down and actually sell it off to somebody else.
    They had a docent organization there, and again they went to the county and said, "Please don't do this. Let us raise the money." And they have very successfully formed a guild in which they're able to raise funds, not only to keep it operating, but also to make major expansions and improvements in the park. All of which is (to) the county's benefit, because it costs them no money but they still have their sign out in front saying that this is a county facility. So maybe someday we can get that way with Placerita.

Diane: Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Jim: If we just had a $3 million endowment, we could operate the park without any dependence on the county at all right now.

Signal: Any of Francisco Lopez's descendants have any money to donate to keep the legacy alive?

Diane: Wouldn't that be nice? Or the Walker family. But that hasn't happened.

Signal: Wasn't there money in the last few years to expand the park property?

Jim: There is money available. Back in 1992, Proposition A money, and again in 1996, the voters approved for the bonds to be sold in order to acquire more money for the park. This was a particular site that a private owner has; it's right smack between the park and the forest area. There's no access to that particular property except right across the park. And the county has not been able to successfully negotiate with that individual.
    My vision is to expand to the east where there is still property available, which has some very interesting characteristics to it — oak tree savannas up there, vernal ponds; this winter there was a waterfall about 10 feet high. A lot of nice characteristics. Unfortunately, they used to do some ordnance (munitions) work at that particular property, and everybody's concerned about the perchlorate.

Diane: This area didn't get burned. It has beautiful oak trees on it.

Jim: The fire did not reach that area. So we have a need to expand the park. We're maxed out right now in terms of parking and so forth. My vision is to acquire the property to the east, build a new nature center up there and museum, retain the current the facilities we have, which would be for animal care and training, and bring the schools in and connect the two together — which would give us about a four-mile distance in terms of one end of the park to another.

Signal: What is the acreage right now?

Diane: Three-hundred twenty acres. We feel that 10 years, 20 years from now, if we don't somehow find more money to acquire more property around it, the Nature Center will be surrounded by housing tracts. And we know what happens. The traffic and the congestion (will) destroy that lovely area — Walker Ranch is where the Scouts come to do their weekend camp-outs and things. And can you imagine them camping out with a traffic light nearby, and sirens and dogs barking and things. That would destroy the nature of it.
    That's why we think, looking far in advance, there really is a need to acquire it. We've talked to city, county people; everybody agrees; it's just that nobody has money in their pockets. And everybody has their needs, too. I mean, as far as Supervisor Antonovich's district is concerned, he's got needs in Palmdale, Lancaster and other areas, too. And we're just one area.

Signal: Wasn't there some nearby open space coming through the Golden Valley Ranch project?

Diane: Yes. We will have 900 acres from that. That will be dedicated to the city of Santa Clarita as open space in perpetuity. Next to that is Disney's Golden Oak Ranch, and some day — the day is going to come that it will be too noisy there, too much light intrusion, for (Disney) to continue doing what they're doing.
    I know at one time they were even talking about some hotels and golf courses up close to Highway 14, and once again, that's a threat to the Nature Center, too. And it's long term, but it's certainly something that we would like to see everybody get to thinking about, and everybody taking some action on it. So we're here to stir the pot.

Signal: Is the Golden Valley Ranch open space area adjacent to the park?

Jim: Yes, it is. In fact, it's right at the very eastern edge of it. There's a slice on the southern side of Highway 14. Most of it is along Placerita Canyon (Road). Most of it is on the northern side of it. But there is a large, pristine area which is on the southern side, which will be part of the city. So the city is going to have a patch of land right next to the county park.

Signal: Are there plans for connecting trails or a joint operation or that sort of thing?

Jim: We would like to think that will happen.

Diane: And actually since it's an open space area, there will not be large things done with it. There will not be nature centers built on it or things like that. But trails, hiking and horse trails — the Sand Canyon community has been very cooperative, as far as getting horse trails laid out and things like that, because they love to go through that area, too.

Signal: What inspired you two to get involved with Placerita park?

Jim: Diane has always been involved. She was one of the citizens there at the original dedication in 1971.

Diane: With (former County Supervisor) Warren Dorn and (local historian) A.B. Perkins.

Jim: I was a typical working husband who drove to the San Fernando Valley. I would drive (by) Placerita park every day, going down Sand Canyon. I enjoyed the drive, but I never bothered spending much time there until I was retired. I think she wanted to get me out of the house and saw an ad in the paper about our docent training and said, "I think you're going to like this."

Diane: It's a calm place of resurgence when you an get away from all the sounds and noises and look up at the sky and see red-tailed hawks or listen to a babbling brook. And it's getting so congested around here that it's just becoming more and more important to us. So, yeah, Jim and Diane are pretty passionate about it.

Jim: We have a motto that we have at the Nature Center which is, "Providing tranquility in a stressful urban society." And that's pretty much what we do. It's one of the few places where you can go, get away from the traffic noise, listen to a babbling brook, listen to some birds, get your thoughts together, walk with your kids through a forest.

    For more information about the Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates, visit See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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