Environmentalists are set to turn the Orange County oil field into a nature preserve

Environmentalists are set to turn the Orange County oil field into a nature preserve

On Friday, the non-profit Trust for Public Land completed the purchase of an oil field atop the coastal cliffs of Newport Beach, ensuring the property will be cleaned up and preserved as open space.

The 384-acre Banning Ranch property, whose future was at the center of an intense decades-long struggle in Orange County, is believed to be the last undeveloped coastal real estate in Southern California.

For years, developers viewed the multimillion-dollar strip of land — with its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean — as a prime location for homes, shops, and, at one time, a boutique hotel. But conservationists and local Indigenous leaders saw an opportunity for rare open space in a county of nearly 3.2 million people.

Originally the ancestral lands of the Acjachemen and Tongva, who called this land Genga, it became a cattle and sheep ranch after Western colonization – and since the 1940s it has been an active oil field.

Oil wells, pipelines, and other equipment remain scattered across the property, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence that few residents have ventured past. But by noon Friday, oil operations officially ceased, said Guillermo Rodriguez, state director of the Trust for Public Land.

“It is surreal after years of trials and tribulations that today a nearly 400-acre property is now in public hands,” Rodriguez said. “This is a tremendous opportunity to increase habitat restoration and urban wildlife restoration.”

The Trust for Public Land and the Banning Ranch Conservancy worked for years to secure $97 million in public and private funding to purchase the property from AERA Energy and Cherokee Investment Partners.

Their effort was bolstered by a $50 million donation from longtime Orange County residents Frank and Joan Randall. The Wildlife Conservation Board, California Natural Resources Agency, State Coastal Conservancy, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife have also allocated funds to purchase the land.

Banning Ranch is home to approximately 100 acres of marsh, mudflat and riparian scrub and 67 acres of coastal sage scrub which provide habitat for sensitive species such as burrowing owls, fairy shrimp, peregrine falcons and California gnatcatcher federally endangered.

“For more than two decades, the property has been in a state of utter disrepair,” said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine), who helped secure state funding for the purchase. “And I think we’re on the verge of making it a gem not just for Orange County, but for all of Southern California.”

The former owners will be responsible for cleaning up oil operations on the ground, a process that could take up to three years. While the site is undergoing remediation, project managers plan to work with the neighboring community to develop a vision for the future of the property.

Conservationists predict it will become a public park and nature preserve that would provide coastal access for Californians with trails, camping and picnic sites. They also plan to pay homage to Native American tribes that have lived on the property for thousands of years.

“Genga holds a special place in our hearts,” Heidi Lucero, president of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, said in a statement. She added that they are “delighted to be able to share with the public the importance of this village”.

Maintaining the property as green space also marks a critical step toward the state’s climate goals, which include protecting 30 percent of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said the sale “demonstrates the power of grassroots organizing and what happens when a coalition of passionate local citizen organizations, residents and community leaders work together to protect open spaces.

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