Keys to Laguna’s Paradise Pass to a New Generation

Max Borella and Derek Ostensen, new leaders of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, must redefine its direction. Photo by Ted Reckas

Current residents can look out upon the hills cradling Laguna Beach secure in the knowledge that much of the open space that meets their gaze will remain that way. Much of the credit goes to the visionaries who established Laguna Canyon Foundation in 1991 with the aim of preserving land within and around Laguna Canyon.

Growing up here, Derek Ostensen, the foundation’s new president, didn’t realize the natural environment was unprotected land that could still be bulldozed for housing pads. He began to develop an expertise in land conservation when he “found out that a lot of the open space that I thought was protected was actually privately owned,” and subject to any number of uses, he said.

Ostensen and Max Borella, the foundation’s newest executive director, were both coming of age in Laguna as the non-profit’s supporters pushed to ensure the greenbelt’s longevity. The foundation’s stewardship now encompasses 23,000 acres of contiguous land that includes the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park, as well the City of Irvine’s open space preserve. It is the second largest coastal preserve in Southern California after the Santa Monica Mountains.

Now, Ostensen and Borella represent the foundation’s new guard, who must redefine their predecessors’ mission. They are poised in-between the founding generation that prized the undeveloped land enough to fight to keep it and the current generation that may not appreciate the gift of open space bequeathed to them.

The old vanguard only recently passed the baton and made some false starts in doing so. The founding president Michael Pinto served for 19 years before retiring last year. Don Vivrette served a stint as president before Ostensen was elected. Mary Fegraus, the foundation’s founding executive director for 17 years, remains involved as an advisor. Two previous hires to succeed her fizzled for different reasons. A year lapsed before Borella filled the post this past December.

It remains to be seen whether the current duo has staying power. The foundation’s initial mission to preserve Laguna Canyon from development has been accomplished. Now, the 20-year-old organization must preserve itself, luring volunteers and donors in a support role rather than battling developers.

It’s “not quite as exciting as stopping development,” said Fegraus, expressing confidence that Ostensen and Borella remain passionate about the foundation’s broader mission.

Even so, 20 to 30 privately owned parcels of four to 150 acres that abut parkland remain priorities for conservation, according to Ostensen. The foundation’s leaders have stitched together funding through grants, bonds or private donations to make land buys. In most cases, Laguna Beach takes title of the purchases and then leases the land to the county, which manages it as part of the wilderness park.

Over the past eight years, the foundation has helped preserve over 400 acres of critical habitat and public recreation lands in alliances with the Conservation Fund as well as state and local governments, according to Ostensen, who began working for the foundation as a conservation consultant in 2002. He and board member Scott Ferguson are credited with making most of the deals.

Some acquisitions were purchases, others negotiated donations. Many were funded through the Prop. 12 Park Bond Act that voters approved in 2000. Bond funds, though, will be exhausted within the next two years. After that, the foundation’s leaders will be forced to seek other sources of funding.

Park programs include children's yoga.

Having hit key preservation milestones, Ostensen and Borella find their new goals to be more down to earth, literally, restoring habitat and expanding public programs, such as the 30 or so underway each month in the county parks. They must manage an army of 315 park volunteers, about 150 of whom are active each month working at the nature centers and leading hikes, including a trail maintenance crew of 13. They also offer educational programs for school children, particularly youth from underserved communities of Orange County.

Thanks to foundation volunteers, who supplemented county crews led by rangers, local wilderness parks reopened fairly quickly after the extensive damage to trails caused by December floods. A tractor, on the foundation’s wish list, would have hastened the repairs even more.

Like Ostensen, the conservation of the greenbelt made an impression on a young Borella. He went on to serve in the Peace Corps in Bolivia before taking a post at Stanford University, where he designed field-based research programs for earth-science studies undergraduates. “It was extremely difficult leaving Stanford,” he admitted, but added that “it was a childhood dream to come home and have this position.”

He’s got his work cut out for him. Staffing cutbacks of part-time employees last fall resulted in the elimination of directors of education and community development, adding to his responsibilities.

Fortunately, Borella said, “I love getting work done,” which involves reaching out to the next generation of park users, newcomers and kids growing up here. They lack the connection to the land because they didn’t have to save it, he said. “The older generation has done their job,” said Borella. “Now it’s up to the next generation to carry on their legacy.”

Ostensen, too, feels the need to “encourage people to support the park so that many generations to come can enjoy its magic.”

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