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Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor contributes to 30x30 goals (Laguna Greenbelt Guest Article)

Updated: May 6, 2023

[This article was written by Giovanni Di Franco, Digital Media Coordinator at Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. We have been delighted to host Laguna Greenbelt virtually with this article as well as in-person at our Earth Day C&C event last Saturday (recording will hopefully be posted on our website soon). If you would like to learn more about Laguna Greenbelt and the great work they do to protect wildlife habitat in Orange County, please visit their website!]

The state of California is at the forefront of environmental policy in the United States. To address climate issues, California adopted the 30×30 initiative. This program is designed to preserve 30% of land and coastal waters by 2030 and has been adopted by over 100 countries, including the United States. The goals are to protect biodiversity, improve equitable access to nature for all, and combat climate change. While approximately 24% of California’s lands and 16% of coastal waters are protected, there are many additional areas not currently considered part of the program because they are fragmented, decreasing their functionality for plants and wildlife.

To help us better understand a 30x30 conservation area, the State of California has defined it as “land and coastal water areas that are durably protected and managed to sustain functional ecosystems, both intact and restored, and the diversity of life that they support”. The State tracks the inventory of land and its protected status using the USGS Protected Areas Database of the United States. Within that, California has adapted the USGS GAP Status Code to determine 30x30 conservation area totals. Gap Status codes are used to measure the management of areas to permanently protect biodiversity. Gaps 1 and 2 are areas documented to prioritize biodiversity protection whereas Gap 3 is for multiuse management and Gap 4 has no known biodiversity protection. Orange County only has approximately 10% of protected lands under the GAP Status codes 1 and 2, indicating prioritization of biodiversity protection. This shows that Orange County has room for improvement in prioritizing conservation efforts in our area. To learn about which lands are included in this initiative, the land uses present, and tracking land status, visit this website.

Images of a “kinked tail”, researched by Huffmeyer et al. (source at bottom)

As highlighted in a previous post, wildlife crossings as a component of wildlife corridors act as “land bridges” that connect green spaces for wildlife to move between habitat areas. When animal populations are cut off from the ability to travel and become isolated, inbreeding can affect species’ fitness. Scientists refer to these effects as inbreeding depression. Without the ability to breed with genetically diverse mates, related individuals reproduce and have offspring that may express genetic mutations such as the “kinked tail” seen in mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains region, or other serious genetic weaknesses.

As temperatures are increasing due to climate change, we are looking for ways to encourage resilience in our communities. In this new reality, some animals and plants may need to travel and shift into new habitats. We can support these natural processes with our development practices, policies, and individual actions. There must be protected lands that contain habitable ecosystems to ensure the survival of native species. We are fortunate that the South Coast Wilderness/Greenbelt and surrounding lands are being considered as a priority project by the 30 x 30 initiative for “climate resilience” in Orange County.

The Laguna Greenbelt and surrounding lands are joined to designated natural lands to the north and east of Irvine via the Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor, with the Corridor being an essential spine connecting more than 100,000 acres of natural lands. Not only do these acres act as green space for plants and wildlife, but they provide many co-benefits, such as a place for water to travel during the rainy season. These functions support climate change adaptation on the land for plants and animals and, by extension, human society.

Reserve Map from the Natural Communities Coalition

This region includes the Southern and Northern Reserves as designated by the State Natural Community Conservation Plan and the federal Habitat Conservation Plan (NCCP/HCP). To the south resides the 22,000 acres which include Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, Crystal Cove State Park, and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The northern portion of Orange County that is protected includes Cleveland National Forest, Whiting Ranch, and Limestone Canyon which amount to over 150,000 acres of open space for wildlife. Between these preserved areas is the bustling city of Irvine, California with a population of about 300,000. Characterized by its expansive roadways and large housing communities, one could imagine the difficulty of navigating the city as a small creature.

Members of Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. and FivePoint overlook a portion of the Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor.

This is where the Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor can function as a pathway specifically designed and built for wildlife. Animals travel through the concrete channels of the Irvine Spectrum, along the eastern edge of the Great Park, and eventually make their way through the Corridor into the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains! The primary obstacle that impacts the ability of wildlife to travel freely is the I-5 Freeway. As it cuts through the City of Irvine, the I-5 is a barrier for wildlife to move between the Southern and Northern Reserves. With additional planning, solutions to overcome this obstacle can be implemented to allow safe passage (again, take a look at our previous article on wildlife crossings here). With the help and support from local citizens, city officials, and the State, the Irvine-Laguna Wildlife Corridor will contribute to regional climate change resilience as a 30×30 project.

Source for kinked tails: Huffmeyer, Audra A., et al. “First reproductive signs of inbreeding depression in Southern California male mountain lions (Puma concolor).” Theriogenology 177 (2022): 157-164.

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