By: K.C. GERRITSEN – For the North County Times | Saturday, April 2, 2005 8:58 PM PST
VALLEY CENTER —- Gnarled fingers of oak and manzanita, blackened by the Paradise fire, are making way for a new generation of greenery this spring in Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve —- 1,712 acres of spirited terrain east of Valley Center.
Horned lizards, coyotes and even mountain lions have returned home to the place that earned its name, some say, because summers in the preserve’s rugged hills and canyon are "as hot as you know where."
But in the flowered landscape that carpets the preserve, the Friends of Hellhole Canyon discovered a problem. Hellhole had a hole in its heart.
More than 150 acres of privately-owned land, surrounded on the east, west and north by the county-owned preserve, interrupted a key habitat corridor —- a veritable varmint highway.
About a week ago, that hole was mended, when the county Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of the land, with $430,0000 raised by the nonprofit Friends of Hellhole Canyon.
Property owner Mary Anne Peters Brown said she was happy to see her land preserved.
"I’m an enviromentalist and I think it’s a very appropriate use for the property," she said. "I have nothing but good feelings about the changeover."
Friends president Rick Landavazo said, "Biologically, in order to have a consistent, contiguous habitat, it was very important that this parcel be preserved and protected from development."
Like a puzzle piece, the 150 acres will complete an east-west habitat corridor that follows Hell Creek at the southern boundary of the preserve.
"We wanted to see it added to the preserve," Landavazo said.
A handful of county parks department volunteers formed the nonprofit in 2000 and negotiated a five-year purchase option with property owner Mary Anne Peters Brown. With the clock ticking, the quest for funds began.
Their quest began with seed money: a $25,000 grant from the San Diego Foundation that the group used to print color brochures and other materials to let the public know about the campaign.
Later, the group’s demonstration of the land’s biological importance paid off when the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board awarded them their second grant, this one for $100,000.
As Landavazo said, "Matching (biological proof) with public support was really key." So the group launched a successful petition drive, garnering more than 900 signatures to show that locals were squarely behind the effort.
The county Parks and Recreation Department matched the conservation board’s funds. The Friends then landed a coveted $230,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation’s Enhanced Environmental Mitigation Program. With $50,000 in additional donations by the group’s members and supportive individuals, the Friends found their coffers filled, with some left over for future acquisitions.
The deed was done, but not without some battles as uphill as Hellhole’s terrain. The grant application process, for instance, was no walk in the park. "We essentially had to do all the biological research (to show) how important the land was," Landavazo said.
The effects of Sept. 11, 2001, a recession, and state budget cutbacks also hit hard. "We had to launch another petition campaign, and a mail campaign to get our grants restored," Landavazo said.
The devastating Paradise fire in October 2003, put another hold on fund-raising before the group resumed last summer. The financial stars finally aligned, leading to the Board of Supervisors’ vote and the opening of escrow on March 23.
County parks spokeswoman Amy Harbert said last week that the effort has been a good collaboration between the nonprofit and the county.
"We have a great working relationship with them. We’re very thankful that they’re helping us —- in this project and also in future things to come," she said.
The group still sees plenty to do. "We want to continue what we’ve started and use this acquisition as a model for other work. There are lots of biologically important lands in our community," said Landavazo.