Fellow Story

Jensen quoted in The Guardian on fire risk at proposed CA wildland development

Editor's note: the following is an excerpt from this article in the Guardian, featuring Switzer Fellow Nick Jensen. See the full article here

California developers want to build a city in the wildlands. It could all go up in flames

by Maanvi Singh in the Guardian 


About an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles lies one of the last remaining pieces of the truly wild, wild west.

The 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch is dotted with centuries-old native oaks. Endangered mountain lions roam the grounds, and California condors soar above it. Rains paint the hills bright orange with poppies, and purple with lupine. But in the summer, and during drought years, the landscape dries to a shimmering gold. A small group of cowboys still run cattle here.

Soon all of it could go up in smoke, scientists and climate activists fear.

The Tejon Ranch Company, the publicly traded corporation that owns the land, wants to build 20,000 houses, as well as shopping centers, offices, gyms and restaurants along this frontier. The company first pitched the project, called Centennial, two decades ago as a solution to California’s housing crisis.

The development has been controversial from the start, but as California braces for an extreme wildfire season, debate over whether the project should go forward has taken on renewed urgency. Environmental groups are warning that in the age of western megafires, building along these windy, arid grasslands would put tens of thousands of people, as well as highly endangered plants and animals, in harm’s way.

“Centennial embodies this vision and lifestyle that just doesn’t fit in the 21st century,” said Nick Jensen, a botanist with the California Native Plant Society, who has been protesting against the development for years. The idea of taming the wildlands, of propagating it with picket-fenced homes was once integral to the American dream, he said. “But in the modern age, in the age of climate change and in the age of wildfires – it just doesn’t fit."

The fight for Centennial

Tejon Ranch is the largest private landholding in California, spanning 422 sq miles. It’s bigger than the New York metro area, and nearly as big as the city of Los Angeles.

Jensen, who has spent a decade studying, and fighting to conserve this landscape, can’t help but get excited as he talks about it. As a graduate student, he discovered a previously unknown species of wildflower – the Tejon jewel flower – here.

The landscape is unlike any other in the world, constantly transmorphing over time and space. Rugged, rocky terrain gives way to rolling hills, which transition into dusty desert dotted with Joshua trees. Fourteen per cent of all California native plant species, sub-species and varieties grow within the ranch’s boundaries.

The property’s untamed valleys and jagged mountain peaks often serve as a backdrop for luxury car commercials and fashion shoots. Annie Leibovitz photographed Rihanna, crouched amid Tejon’s golden grasslands, for a Vogue magazine cover. The movie Seabiscuit was largely filmed on the ranch; so was Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams music video.

“I love this place,” said Jensen – who was banned from the premises after he began advocating against Centennial. “But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live here,” he said.

The Tejon Ranch Company pitched Centennial in 1999 as an opportunity for middle class families priced out of Los Angeles to buy their very own plot of paradise. Since then, Tejon developers have been trying to sell that vision.


There will always be risk’

This April, as a deepening drought threatened to bring on yet another destructive, deadly fire season, a judge in Los Angeles county halted the construction of Centennial, citing wildfire risk. Following a lawsuit brought by the non-profit Climate Resolve, the superior court judge Mitchell Beckloff ruled that while the environmental impact report that Tejon Ranch Co submitted with its proposal for Centennial adequately explained how the development would manage fires on site, its conclusion that the new construction wouldn’t impact fires in other areas was “problematic”.

For the environmental activists who had been fighting the project, “it was our first, big win,” said Jensen. Lawyers from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Native Plant Society – who have also challenged Centennial over the project’s environmental impact were emboldened. “I don’t think Tejon will be able to get out of this easily,” said JP Rose, an attorney with CBD.


At Tejon Ranch, drought sucked some of the plant life so dry this spring it had faded to a deathly gray. As Jensen drove through the region in late May, winds were so strong that they caused his Prius to drift off the highway, its windows vibrating with each large gust. About 15 minutes from where Centennial would be built, a 300-acre wildfire blackened mostly uninhabited fields of dried grass. Fire crews sprawled across the char, tamping out the dying embers.

No injuries were reported, and no structures were burned. “But right now, this is all just empty,” Jensen said. “Just imagine this if thousands of people were living here.”


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