Rorie Skei, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Sunday, September 14, 2003
(Television interview conducted Aug. 21, 2003)

Rorie Skei     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Rorie Skei, chief deputy director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. The following interview was taped Aug. 21. Questions are paraphrased and some answers are abbreviated for length.

Signal: Placerita Canyon Nature Center is a state park, run by the county. The county's broke and the park was going to close — but now it's not?

Skei: Right. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, with our joint-power partner, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, did agree on an interim basis to run Placerita Canyon, at least on a month-to-month basis for about six months, and we'll see how the funds hold out from there.
   It is such a beautiful park. It's (got) wonderful programs, a great volunteer corps, and the mission and program at Placerita meshes very well with our mission...

Signal: What is the mission of the Conservancy?

Skei: The Conservancy is a state agency. It's been around since 1980. The mission is to buy back, protect, preserve, all the natural lands surrounding the Los Angeles and Ventura county areas, to provide nature education programs, to essentially create an interlinking system of parks, trails and open space that will preserve our natural heritage and cultural heritage in Southern California.

Signal: It's a state agency but it oversees only a particular region?

Skei: That's correct. The Legislature set out our territory back when we were first formed. At that point, it was mostly just the Santa Monica Mountains. Since then, subsequent legislation (has) expanded our zone so that we have what's called the Rim of the Valley Trail Corridor. That puts us from Serra Madre to Santa Clarita, close to Palmdale, (and) a big chunk of Ventura County...

Signal: The Conservancy operates some parks that it doesn't own?

Skei: That's true. (In) one interesting instance, here in Santa Clarita we have Whitney Canyon Park, which is owned by another one of our joint-power partners, one we formed with the city of Santa Clarita. We have these long names, but it is the Santa Clarita Watershed Recreation and Conservation Authority ... that owns that property. The Conservancy manages it.

Signal: Tell us about Whitney Canyon.

Skei: Whitney Canyon is directly off the Antelope Valley freeway at the San Fernando Road off-ramp. If you use the park-and-ride there, or if you're going north to Palmdale, you can't miss it. It's about a 460-acre property, fronts right on the freeway, extends back, connects up with Angeles National Forest property...
   It had been a property that we and a lot of activists here in Santa Clarita had as a wish-list property for many, many years. And we entertained discussions with the then-owner, Ray Watt. Over the years it kept coming up — how are we going to buy this property? — and either there wasn't a willing seller, or there wasn't a funding source.
   Finally, former Assemblyman George Runner really worked hard to get us some funds for that. Proposition 12, the state park bond that passed in 2000, provided the funding, and last summer, 2002, we finally closed escrow on that property and had the big dedication last November.

Signal: It's also right next to Elsmere Canyon, where they were going to put a landfill. Was part of the idea to stop the landfill?

Skei: That didn't figure into the joint-power purchase of Whitney because by the time we did that, the prospects of Elsmere being a landfill are, as you know, pretty darned remote at this point.
   Elsmere is a separate property, and it too is one that we would very much like to acquire sooner or later, and I would expect that some day it will be a park — probably not that far in the future.

Signal: Stopping landfills came into play on the other side of town, in Towsley Canyon.

Skei: That's right. Late '88, '89, '90, the Los Angeles County sanitation districts were very active in identifying future landfill sites, most of which seemed to be right around the Santa Clarita Valley. ... Towsley was slated as a potential landfill site.

Signal: Why would Towsley be a bad place for a landfill?

Skei: The fact that it is in this extraordinarily diverse natural area. It's in a significant ecological area as designated by Los Angeles County. Five species of oak trees, big-cone Douglas fir, every large mammal that you're going to find in Southern California including black bear. Year-round streams, completely accessible for public recreation because it's right off (Interstate 5) and major road. Everything about Towsley Canyon and the surrounding canyons in the Santa Clarita Woodlands just simply cried out to be park and not a garbage dump.

Signal: What is the grand plan for the Santa Clarita Woodlands?

Skei: Pretty much what you see now. The grand plan is to preserve that important ecological area — the beautiful scenery, the habitat connections, at the same time letting the people of Santa Clarita and the region — the state, really — enjoy it for hiking and bicycling and going to the nature programs we have. Maybe at some point we'll be able to have youth camping in some of the spots. It is indeed a recreation area and a very pristine natural area that coexist.

Signal: When people say "environmental protection," some probably assume it means cordoning off an area so no one walks on a particular flower, for instance. But you mention recreation. How does recreation work if the goal is preservation?

Skei: That's all part of good resource management. We find a way to accommodate what needs to be done in terms of protecting a resource while still allowing and encouraging public access.
   And in fact that's part of our statute: We must provide for public access at properties that we buy. That doesn't mean all bets are off, you just come down with your four-wheel drive and you just rampage over the hills. That definitely isn't going to be allowed. And we do have a very dedicated and excellent ranger corps (to) make sure that the resource is protected so people can enjoy the properties appropriately.

Signal: Whitney Canyon was once proposed for an off-road vehicle course.

Skei: Yes, it was.

Signal: What kinds of recreational opportunities do you provide?

Skei: Let's take Towsley Canyon for an example. Every day, you'll see people jogging, walking, (doing) their morning exercise routine, dog walking, horseback riding. At Ed Davis Park in Towsley Canyon, which we named after the former state senator who got the funds to buy that first little piece of property.., there is a nature education center. ... We have people on duty who lead hikes. We have school programs. In fact, folks can even rent the house there, the Towsley Canyon lodge, for group events or picnics. You can picnic for free anytime, but if you want to have a nice event, you can use that facility.

Signal: How does the Conservancy have the money to take on new things like the operation of Placerita?

Skei: It's definitely always a challenge, as it is for any park agency. Acquisition dollars are one thing, but running a park is something else. We do have the benefit of some Proposition A maintenance money that comes through the former L.A. County measure that the people of L.A. County voted to tax themselves for open space, and that helps operate the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park.
   There's also other revenue sources that sometimes come with a property. (At) some properties, we have repeater antennas on them, and that lease revenue is a big help toward operating and maintaining a park. And there's filming. It hasn't been as big a revenue producer for some of our parks out here, but other parks that we run are very popular filming sources, and then that money can be used to offset (operating) expenses at parks out here.
   That's not to say in the future we may not need to do something like a modest parking fee. That hasn't been determined yet But it may be in the future, just to keep parks running and open and clean.

Signal: To whom does the Conservancy answer? Can the governor replace the executive director, or are you autonomous? Are you part of the state Parks Department?

Skei: No, we're a separate state agency. We're under the state Resources Agency. There's a governing board for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the board members are appointed by state and local governments, the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, the president pro-tem of the state senate. L.A. County and Ventura County each have a representative; National Parks Service; state Parks (Department), and the Resources Agency all have representatives (whom) they all appoint to our board.
   So the governing board is the one that hires and fires the executive director. And in our case, our executive director, Joe Edmiston, has been in place since the inception of the agency...

Signal: Joe Edmiston has been called one of the most powerful men in California, politically. Does that make you one of the most powerful women in California?

Skei: Would that it were true.

Signal: What are your responsibilities as chief deputy director?

Skei: It's a lot of everything. Overseeing all the operations, all the parks, the political liaison with our legislators. Right now we're involved in some really big acquisition projects. ... My background is as a biologist, and I've kind of worked my way through the ranks of all the jobs we've had at the Conservancy.

Signal: How long have you been with the Conservancy?

Skei: I've been on the staff of the agency since 1990, and for six years prior to that I was one of those appointed board members. I represented the county of Ventura on the board. So I've been around awhile. Master's degree in environmental science from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from UC Santa Barbara.

Signal: When you think of the development history of Los Angeles County, it's a story of urban sprawl. Is the Conservancy the antithesis to that?

Skei: Well, maybe we're trying to put the brakes on some of that and guide that growth through offering a better example. Let's have real nature that's still a part of this urban experience. Let's have parks and wild country and open space that people who live in the urban area can still enjoy and know that their grandchildren will still enjoy...

Signal: Is there anything really important in the Los Angeles area, ecologically, to save?

Skei: Indeed. It's one of those best-kept secrets. (We) continue to have to re-educate the folks from Sacramento or Washington that Los Angeles isn't paved over. There is real nature here. And we're part of the Mediterranean ecosystem, the Southern California landscape you see.
   A lot of people don't know that it is ... maybe the rarest ecosystem worldwide, more rare than tropical rain forests, for instance. There is so little of it left that it only exists in a very small area of a few continents — Chile, South Africa, Australia and Southern California. So what we have here, this is the last of what there is, and we're bent on saving it.

Signal: How realistic is it to believe that some of the endangered species in the news lately — the southwestern arroyo toad, the California red-legged frog, the unarmored threespine stickleback — can ultimately be saved?

Skei: I think it is realistic. Part of the effort in these park acquisitions — it's not just to have another pretty place, not just a scenic backdrop for the cities — is to link up so that there is a genetic reservoir that can be maintained over hundreds of years between the mountain ranges — the Santa Monicas, the Simis, the Santa Susanas, and ... into the San Gabriels.
   We know we've identified the critical choke points, the linkage points across the freeways, for instance. We're pretty close in terms of saving, at least in terms of acquiring as public lands, some of the key areas that lead up to those choke points.
   (To) put it in a dollars and cents way, if we're going to preserve the huge public investment that's already been made in buying park lands, (so) that they are really functioning ecological systems into the coming centuries, then we have to make sure that we preserve the linkages between the mountain ranges.
   Species like the red-legged frog — that one is very close to being extirpated in this part of the world. What a great find that it was found on the Ahmanson Ranch at the southeastern end of Ventura County.
   We have an opportunity now, we hope, that we'll be able to buy that property and make sure that (habitat) does not get damaged in any way...

Signal: All of the Ahmanson Ranch and not just the Bob Hope part?

Skei: Yes. We already have all the Bob Hope parts. Those came in 1998. So (the) Conservancy has all of the properties that Bob Hope used to own in the Simi Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains.

Signal: Ahmanson Ranch was supposed to be 3,000-home development in Ventura County, but now maybe it won't be?

Skei: The owners, Washington Mutual, have said they would entertain a public purchase offer. So there's nothing settled yet...

Signal: Public, as in the Conservancy?

Skei: Yes. And funded through Proposition 50, which is the state water bond last year. A lot of state agencies are working virtually around the clock right now with us to see if we can make this happen. It's not to say it will; they're also entertaining offers from other builders, too.

Signal: What is the Conservancy's responsibility in the development process in terms of guiding cities and counties in their land-use decisions?

Skei: That is a big part of what we do. A lot of that is through the project review process, environmental impact reports, talking to cities and planning commissions and counties. We can't buy everything. There isn't enough money and it's not the way to go. But oftentimes you really can balance development with preserving what's most important in terms of the natural environment. And that's where our role is.
   Our biologists, our staff ecologist, our board are pretty assiduous in going through environmental impact reports and looking at a project and seeing what kind of impact it might have on a connecting trail, on an existing park, or a future need for connecting wildlife. So, that's an important part of what we do, and actually it has been quite well received, believe it or not.

Signal: You mentioned the Rim of the Valley Trail Corridor. What is that?

Skei: It's a broad planning area, it's a big geographic area, but it's all organized around the idea of having a backbone trail for this part of Southern California that would encircle the urban areas and allow people to have a real wilderness experience, accessible from their homes. ....
   The corridor itself, the trail, is not all in place all the way along. We're in the process of acquiring the land and building it where we need to. But it's a way to show a connection between the parks. ... It's also in our statute. It's defined as the area where, for scientific and educational and recreational purposes, the Conservancy shall work with local governments and others to buy land and provide programming.

Signal: Tell us about Pico Canyon and Mentryville.

Skei: Pico Canyon, Mentryville, part of the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park. What a delightful spot. That was part of the property we bought from Chevron. That has the first producing oil well ever, west of Pennsylvania — (a) historic site that is very exciting. There is an active volunteer group called the Friends of Mentryville ... who have been helping us provide tours and programming and figuring out how to do all of the restoration we need to do, right there at the end of Pico Canyon Road, open every day.

Signal: You don't just buy property; sometimes it's given to you.

Skei: Yes indeed. So anyone who has property out there — we've been very lucky to be the recipients of some tremendously beautiful pieces of property, the Pico Canyon property being one of them (donated by Chevron).

   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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