By Tommy Hough
Big thanks to Bruce Coons from the Save Our Heritage Organisation (who first visited Rancho Guejito as part of a research trip in 1969) and Dan Silver from the Endangered Habitats League for joining us for this Treehuggers International discussion on Rancho Guejito, often referred to as the "jewel of San Diego conservation." Additional news items and links are provided below.
Like Going Back in Time
A relic of the Mexican land grant system, Rancho Guejito is the largest area of privately-owned, undeveloped land in Southern California, and it's earned something of a mythical reputation as a place that many in the conservation community have heard about, but few have visited. Rancho Guejito has survived undeveloped for the past 200 years, in part, because of its remote location and a legacy of determined stewardship which that the ranch's succession of owners have exercised – until now.
Located east of Valley Center and north of the Wild Animal Park near the La Jolla Indian Reservation, Rancho Guejito is made up of some 21,000 acres, or 36 square miles. From the end of the Spanish colonial period to the 21st century those fortunate enough to visit are consistent in their ecstatic descriptions of the the valley's wild, isolated qualities. At one point in the 1970s Rancho Guejito was slated to be set aside as a California State Park, but due to funding dilemmas between the Reagan and Brown administrations, this never came to pass.
Golden eagles and mountain lions make this huge expanse of land their home, and as one of the rare, intact habitats in Southern California, Rancho Guejito continues to function as a vital wildlife corridor. Unfortunately, like the recently piecemealed Tejon Ranch in northern Los Angeles and Kern counties, the fate of Rancho Guejito is now in the hands of developers, and further dissection of the area's habitat may not be far off.
After years of publicly stating their desire to keep the valley's wild character intact, the family which owns Rancho Guejito has made an about-face on development. The newly-christened Rancho Geujito Planning Group has proposed a development plan for all 22,000 acres of the ranch, including the construction of 10,000 houses.
We at Treehuggers International are opposed to this and all environmentally-damaging, unsustainable sprawl housing projects. With the nearby Merriam Mountains proposal in Hidden Meadows appearing to be a done deal, and in the wake of housing prices crash and calamitous overdevelopment of Chula Vista, San Marcos, Vista, and inland areas of Southern California from Temecula to Banning, one wonders how any kind of development at Rancho Guejito is necessary or responsible.
Water issues come to mind too. At a time when farmers in Escondido, Valley Center, and Pauma Valley have been forced to decapitate entire groves of avocado trees due to water shortages, what kind of message does it send to build to 10,000 grotesque mcmansions nearby? It would seem developers are, once again, are enjoying free reign in San Diego County despite mandatory water cutbacks and limited access to a potential development site – which has burned again and again in regular wildfire intervals.
Addendum: Rancho Guejito Planning Group Meeting
On Feb. 2, 2010, one year and four months after this show aired, the Rancho Guejito Planning Group held an informational meeting in Pauma Valley that was short on new information. Our friend Rick Halsey with the California Chaparral Institute was in attendance with several reporters, including J. Harry Jones from the San Diego Union-Tribune, along with Native American representatives and local residents.
According to Rick, question after question resulted in few concrete answers. Inquiries about wildlife corridors, water and sewage services, and infrastructure plans in and out of the development other than Highway 78, which is the only major access in road in the area, were "stonewalled," while Indigenous concerns were given especially short thrift.
"A representative of the Pauma Indian band reminded [the spokesperson] about the importance of cultural issues and that Indian bands want to be involved," said Rick. "At this point [the spokesperson] appeared to be getting tired responding and saying nothing, so she didn't say much more than 'I don't know from here on out.' She was especially silent whenever a Native American spoke."
When another Indigenous representative "explained the importance of the spiritual connectedness local Indian bands have with the land, especially land that hasn't been destroyed yet by development, [the spokesperson] said nothing of consequence." When asked about environmental impact studies (EIS), the spokesperson "talked about their maps of the area, which were essentially topographical and vegetation maps any citizen can request from the county. When asked about rare stands of Engelman Oaks on the property, rapidly vanishing from Southern California, the spokesperson agreed they were 'important,' but failed to explain what plans were on the table to preserve them once development commences."
At some point the Union-Tribune's J. Harry Jones pressed the spokesperson on why the owners of Rancho Guejito had decided to develop the area after decades of resistance. The spokesperson claimed ignorance, explaining the "family's previous conservation commitments were made before she became involved with the project." Another representative of the Rancho Guejito Planning Group denied they had been approached by environmental groups about how to potentially manage the site without development.
According to Rick, "I finally said I just wanted to get a few things straight. 'It is my understanding you haven't done any environmental studies or reports concerning the property?' [The spokesperson] replied they had vegetation maps, topographic maps, etc. I then asked if I heard correctly that the owners never drilled any wells or examined the water resources on the property, and [the spokesperson] said she didn't know."
"I [asked] if she could give us two things: 1.) A timeline when she will be able to come back and actually provide us with useful information, and 2.) A commitment to bring in the local Indian bands as part of the process. [The spokesperson] mumbled on about this being a 'complicated process,' then I asked again my second request. No commitment on anything."
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A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.