Protecting Both People and Nature
Reflections on the recent Centennial and Guenoc Valley rulings
By Nick Jensen, PhD
Tejon Ranch has played a prominent role in my life for the past decade. I first ventured onto California’s largest contiguous land holding, located in Los Angeles County, as a graduate student studying the ranch’s flora, making exciting discoveries that extended the known ranges of rare plants and even finding new species. Early on in this research, I remember sitting on top of the spine of the Tehachapi Mountains and gazing down on the contorted grass and wildflower cloaked hills bordering Highway 138 and marveling at their beauty.
Around that time, I also became aware of Tejon Ranch Corporation’s proposal to build a new city with nearly 20,000 homes called Centennial. This development would be built on top of what is considered by many to be one of the finest, most extensive stands of California native grassland that exists today. In California, native grasslands have largely been converted to agriculture and housing. Today, they exist on only a fraction of their historical range, which makes habitats like Tejon Ranch incredibly special. Elsewhere, we have fought to conserve small stands dominated by needlegrass, lupine, poppies, and owl’s clover. Tejon is different. On the Centennial project footprint, thousands of contiguous acres of this habitat are imperiled with bulldozers waiting at the gate.
For more than four years, CNPS has actively opposed the Centennial development. In some ways, advocating for the conservation of one of the finest jewels of California native grasslands is a simple task for CNPS. This habitat should be conserved and managed appropriately. What more needs to be said? However, as an advocate, I have learned that even these “simple” quests for conservation have an uncanny ability to bring some of society’s most pressing problems front and center. In opposing Centennial, we also come face to face with the conflicting pressures of a housing crisis, amid the recognition that we can’t continue to build homes in places with a perennial risk of wildfire.
Centennial isn’t the only place we see this convergence of issues. The Guenoc Valley Project in Lake County, also opposed by CNPS, would place a massive resort development in an area prone to repeated burns. Centennial and Guenoc Valley are just two examples of proposed development that places future residents at risk and destroys irreplaceable habitat. With these challenges, we find ourselves battling a persistent and false narrative that Californians must choose housing over public safety and intact biodiversity. The good news is that we can solve for both if we develop in the right way: densifying existing communities and filling in gaps on already disturbed land.
This is a challenge that plays out at the local level. Both Guenoc and Centennial were ultimately approved by their respective county board of supervisors, which required CNPS to take the counties to court. Of course, we understand that county supervisors are asked to juggle many conflicting priorities when considering projects like Guenoc and Centennial: Many places in California are in need of more (especially affordable) housing, jobs, and economic development, especially in rural areas where investment has been scarce. But, it is a terribly Faustian bargain to place new developments in places that are arguably (and sometimes demonstrably) unsafe. The entire Centennial project has been designated as either a high or very high fire severity zone by CAL FIRE and sits at the junction of the state’s two longest faults, the Garlock and San Andreas. It is also an incredibly windy place, year round. It is not hard to imagine a fire similar to December’s Marshall Fire near Boulder, Colorado, starting on Centennial’s grasslands and traveling through future neighborhoods, from house to house. The dire situation in Guenoc requires no imagination. Just weeks after the board of supervisors approved the project in 2020, a portion of the site burned in the LNU Complex Fire.
With these challenges, we find ourselves battling a persistent and false narrative that Californians must choose housing over public safety and intact biodiversity. The good news is that we can solve for both if we develop in the right way: densifying existing communities and filling in gaps on already disturbed land.
In Centennial and Guenoc Valley, CNPS partnered with the Center for Biological Diversity to raise a range of issues in court that give us the greatest chance of conserving the special places or, at a minimum, ensure that these projects are safer and less environmentally damaging. In the case of Guenoc, former California Attorney General Xavier Beccera joined the litigation as an intervenor, noting that local residents, “deserve to know that the increased wildfire risks resulting from any new development in their area have been properly considered – and mitigated.” These arguments apply both to human safety and the conservation of rare plants and habitats. Although the recent favorable judicial rulings on Centennial and Guenoc Valley did not uphold our native plant arguments, they do uphold a path forward that can benefit both nature and human safety. The rulings emphasize what we all know to be true – that the issues we face are complex and inseparable, from rare species protection and wildfire to affordable housing and climate resilience. We cannot have both safe communities and intact natural ecosystems if developments like Centennial and Guenoc Valley are allowed to proceed. California deserves better. With that, our work continues!