MBEP Member Spotlight:

Land Trust of Santa Cruz County
stewards habitats, heritage worth preserving

Three miles south of Summit Road, there’s a winding stretch of Highway 17 that’s also a highway of sorts for wildlife: Mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, skunks, and deer use Laurel Curve to cross the road. That particular spot, which sees more than 65,000 motorists a day, has the unfortunate distinction of being the deadliest spot for animal deaths and injures, and those wildlife collisions lead to a significant number of car crashes as well.

By intersecting the Gabilan Wildlife Corridor, which runs along the edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, down through the Pajaro Hills, and into the Gabilan Range to the south, the highway also impacts the genetic health and diversity of wide-ranging mountain lions.

The solution — a wildlife crossing under Laurel Curve — has been years in the making, and thanks to the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, will break ground next month.

Making that happen has been no small task, involving research utilizing collared mountain lions, acquiring 460 acres across three properties at a cost of $5.5 million, and building partnerships with local representatives, nonprofits, and public agencies: Of those, Caltrans, Graniterock, and the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission played pivotal roles in making the tunnel a reality. A combination of SCCRTC Measure D funds, a “Keep Santa Cruz Wild” campaign, and $2.1 million in construction support from Caltrans made it possible.

The Laurel Curve wildlife crossing is just the start, explains Land Trust Executive Director Sarah Newkirk, as Land Trust of Santa Cruz County looks ahead to a similar project under Highway 101.

And those efforts have inspired broader change outside of Santa Cruz County: On Oct. 8, Gov. Newsom signed into law SB790 (Stern), which will make wildlife crossings easier to implement statewide. The bill used the mitigation credit framework developed by the Land Trust in partnership with Caltrans and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as the model for a mitigation system that Caltrans can use throughout California. This system creates an incentive for Caltrans to partner on projects that improve wildlife connectivity across state roads and highways by offering mitigation credits in exchange for those projects.

Since its founding in 1978, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County has raised $100 million in funding for conservation and has protected more than 14,000 acres – directly and through partnerships.

An ongoing Nature Connection Campaign aims to raise $21 million to connect wildlife and people to the natural world, funding work throughout Santa Cruz County and into San Benito and Monterey counties, from wildlife crossings to wildlands protections and new trails to connect people to nature.

Its 490-acre Watsonville Slough Farm serves as a model of sustainable working farmland, habitat restoration for the federally threatened California red-legged frog, and a demonstration site for an in-depth filtration system that keeps saltwater at bay. The site is part of a “working lands” initiative, says Newkirk. A partnership with Watsonville Wetlands Watch will create future educational opportunities for local students.

This May, work will begin on the first phase of a 38-mile trail network in the San Vicente Redwoods, as part of a partnership involving Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), Sempervirens Fund, and Save the Redwoods League. The 8,500-acre site is hailed as a living laboratory of forest management, ecosystem restoration, and is part of the reason cited by the New York Times for including Santa Cruz County in its 2022 list of “52 Places for a Changed World,” highlighting places around the globe where travelers can be part of the solution.