As a child growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Michael Berns recalls taking one school field trip, into the wilds of Culver City to the Helms Bakery plant.
Since moving to Orange County in 1987, though, Berns and his wife Trisha started exploring the wilderness in their backyard, hiking and biking the combined 7,400 acres in Crystal Cove State Park and the adjoining county-managed Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
“It takes our breath away,” said Michael Berns, describing the sweeping views, taking in the sapphire ocean and rolling foothills.
After moving to Laguna Beach from Irvine, the couple’s park treks embedded in their routine and their philanthropic goals. Last Friday, the wraps came off their unprecedented $1 million gift, an environmental study loop in Crystal Cove State Park’s Moro Canyon.
The state park department’s director, Anthony Jackson, Crystal Cove Alliance park supporters and other visitors attended the ceremonial ribbon cutting, which was accompanied by the performance of an original composition by Laguna Beach’s Pam Madsen.
Two decades ago, the Berns began stashing away funds for an undefined park initiative that would involve allowing school children a chance to experience the outdoors. “I know there are kids in Garden Grove who have never seen the ocean,” said Michael Berns, a former college professor and business executive convinced that deeper learning could take place outside classrooms.
A visit some years ago to the Coast Wilderness Park’s Nix Center in Laguna Canyon, with its interpretive exhibits, trailside maps and programs by naturalists, provided inspiration on how to proceed, said Tricia Berns, who felt compelled to groom new park enthusiasts. “You protect what you know,” she said.
After seven years in development, helped by the adroit bureaucratic maneuvering of the alliance’s president, Harry Helling, the loop came to fruition, Michael Berns said. “What we were shooting for is out of the mainstream; education not recreation. Everyone had to shift their mission,” he explained.
The resulting private and public partnership is unique in the state and possibly the nation, Helling said in a statement. The 2,400-acre park was purchased in 1979 from The Irvine Company for $32 million.
The half-mile walking loop borders the park’s inland day-use picnic area and amphitheater, a 35-acre area that includes a 60-site campground, the first new camping sites to open in Southern California in 20 years. A former mobile home park on the site closed in 2005. The loop’s eight field stations support grade-school level science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as STEM) education that invite visitors to participate in researching the bugs, birds, weather and animals within El Moro canyon. Crystal Cove is far better known for its three miles of undeveloped coastline, backcountry trails and 29 restored historic seaside cottages that are hugely popular as overnight rentals.
“This is the kind of thing that inspires people and excites them; they can do something,” said Michael Pinto, the founding president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation and California State Parks Foundation board member. “You’re a model,” Pinto said to Tricia Berns, who beamed through her tears.
“Children are going to love this place,” added Pinto, pointing out that Crystal Cove’s popularity and day-use fees produces a surplus that keeps parks open elsewhere. “It’s a critical piece of the California park system.”