Centennial City Site on Tejon Ranch
Centuries ago, Spanish sailors returned to Europe describing a fiery glow along a mysterious shore called California. Telling stories of hills and valleys ablaze with brilliant luminescence of gold and orange flowers, they referred to California as “la tierra del tuego” – the land of fire – for the vast spreads of poppy blooms that covered the land. Afterwards, Spanish missionaries and European settlers discovered the interior of California blanketed with enormous pastures of spring wildflowers extending hundreds of miles from San Francisco to San Diego. The California of yesteryear has dramatically changed with less than ten percent of original, unspoiled wilderness remaining.
“To those whom the tree, the birds, the wildflowers represent only ‘locked-up dollars’ have never known or really seen these things.” – Edwin Way Teale
California wildflowers are protected on public lands such as Death Valley, Anza Borrega State Park, Carrizo Plain National Monument, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve and various ecological reserves. Unfortunately, the crown jewels of California’s wildflower displays lay on private property with current owners determined to build housing projects on pristine wilderness, all in the name of “affordable housing”, that buzz word politicians love to employ but never enact. Of these locations, the two most imperiled are wildflowers displays on the Tejon Ranch and the adjacent Gorman Hills. Located at the convergence of five geomorphic provinces and four floristic zones this location is unique in California. Here are flora of various regions mixing and morphing into densities and varieties unseen anywhere else in the state or the world, which is why super blooms here are so stunning. It’s like walking into a surreal painting, often compared to Yosemite for its extreme natural wonder. Unfortunately, Tejon Ranch and Gorman Hills may lie brown and dormant for months and years on end, so a casual observer is not aware of the magic that’s possible here. It’s out of sight and out of mind until conditions are just right, then a hidden Eden reveals itself. One of these days, the magic may be paved over and lost in perpetuity. It’s the age-old story of power, politics and loss of place.
In the Fall of 2005, students of UCLA’s Extension Landscape Architecture Program under the guide of their instructor Michael O’Brien, ASLA, conducted an intensive 10 week environmental study documenting the feasibilities and reasoning for preserving 2800 acres as a protected wildflower park and habitat sanctuary on the hills of Gorman. Their proposal was presented to the communities adjacent to the site with favorable response and feedback. There are many obstacles to creating a wildflower preserve, cost is chief among them, along with lack of political will.
The Center for Biological Diversity along with partners have proposed creating a new state park on Tejon Ranch (considered the wild heart of California), protecting it from being bulldozed for massive housing projects such as Centennial City that may be built in the middle of pristine wilderness. After decades of lobbying and changing long standing zoning laws behind closed doors without public comment, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved Centennial, a sprawling new city on Tejon Ranch. Centennial would build more than 19,000 housing units and 8.4 million square feet of commercial space over 5,800 acres of the last, best native grassland and wildflower fields left in California.
“The surrounding areas for miles would be vastly impacted and spoiled from the collateral damage, as has been seen time and time again.”
In April 2021, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff found that the development’s environmental review failed to account for the increased wildfire risk the 12,000-acre project would pose to surrounding wildlands. The image seen at the top of this page is ground zero for the site’s location.
If Centennial gets built in the middle of a Significant Ecological Area (SEA), imagine 57,000 people living, commuting, recreating and their effects on the surrounding wilderness. It would no longer be wilderness with the roads, sewer, electrical and other infrastructure required to maintain a city, let alone the spill over effect of people not respecting the sensitive environment around them. The surrounding areas for miles would be vastly impacted and spoiled from the collateral damage, as has been seen time and time again.
The adjacent Gorman Hills are owned by private developers who are waiting for Centennial’s infrastructure to be in place so they can develop this property as seen in the previous image. They’re just waiting to take their bulldozers and stair-step the hilltops into suburban sprawl. The potential loss of an iconic landscape would be a catastrophe for California. The adjacent Tejon Ranch would become a convenient and illegal night-time trash dump, a rampant problem that plagues the outskirts of desert communities everywhere.
March of the Invasives
In the 1700’s early Spanish explorers observed that California resembled a well maintained and manicured garden with balance and symmetry, devoid of overgrowth. Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, this was due to millennia of Native Americans’ care and stewardship of the land. Since then, centuries of exploitation and shortsighted land-use planning along with the introduction of non-native plants have drastically altered California’s ecology. Invasive plants from similar climates have invaded and flourished aggressively taking over native habitats, first in coastal areas and then spreading into interior regions of the state. Among the most damaging of these invaders is a myriad of fast-growing brome grasses that choke off and deprive native plants of water and sunlight. More recently, the Sahara mustard (Brassica tournefortii) has quickly spread throughout the Southwest overtaking many types of California habitats (coastal and desert) due to its uncanny adaptability, along with it being extremely combustable from its density and height making it a maximum fire hazard . This unprecedented invasion of non-native plants, combined with an absence of natural or managed herbivores that could control their spread, exacerbated by widespread fire suppression practices is irrevocably transforming California’s natural areas.
From the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,
“The invasion of non-native plants began in 1769 with Spanish settlement. Evidence of invasive plants has been found within the old adobe bricks of the Spanish missions along the California coast.
The spread of invasive plants is one of the most significant threats to the native plant species and vegetation communities of the state, second only to habitat destruction. Threatened and endangered species are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of invasive plants. A sample of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plans showed that 73 percent of the threatened and endangered species reviewed are threatened by exotic species. Many of California’s most imperiled species occur in close proximity to human development, and with development comes invasive plants. These invasive plants encroach upon the last bastions of many endangered plant species and could be the final straw driving them to extinction. The control and prevention of invasive plant infestations is of the utmost importance for maintaining the biodiversity of California and preventing the extinction of rare, threatened and endangered plant species.”
Mega Drought – Climate Change
The biggest threats to California Flora have been habitat loss and invasive plants in that order, but the rapidly warming planet may pose the greatest threat to California’s wildflowers yet. There is general consensus among climatologists that the North American southwest is likely to evolve into a climate akin to the Sahara Desert if global warming continues. And with the current Mega Drought that started in 2000 being the most severe in recorded history, their predictions appear to be coming true.
With the golden state’s rainy seasons becoming more sporadic along with starting later and ending earlier, the window of needed rain is either disappearing or shortening, leaving many wildflower landscapes abandoned of moisture before getting started, such as the Gorman Hills. Situated around four thousand feet, Gorman is predominantly cool, cloudy and windy throughout the winter, with measurable snowfalls a common occurrence there. So, while lower elevation wildflowers might be basking in more sun with warmth and able to take advantage of any precipitation, Gorman’s weather is too cold for most plants to grow until the sun is higher in the sky during March and April – these are the critical months for Gorman’s flora.
With shortening rainy seasons over the last two decades, Gorman’s hills and other locations in California have been getting noticeably drier during crucial March and April and wildflower blooms have dramatically decreased here since 2003.
In some years the wildflowers have tried blooming, only to be blasted with 100 degree plus temperatures and high winds, leaving them baked in a convection oven. Most recently the decent mid-season rains of 2017 and 2019 created outstanding super blooms in the lower elevations of Carrizo Plain National Monument, Walker Canyon Ecological Reserve, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve and nearby Tejon Ranch, while the Gorman Hills were left high and too dry, with only sporadic flowering. “Hotter and drier” is happening all over the golden state, pushing native plant habitats to record stress levels. There is a need to identify, protect and enhance threatened habitats like these, or we will lose them.
How much longer can California’s wildflower seed reservoirs survive these unprecedented times?
Since 1985, I’ve seen the dramatic change to California’s landscapes as a result of decreased rains and increased heat. I’ve witnessed tree filled canyons become cemeteries of snags along with once regularly verdant spring wildflower locations appearing less often, and now not at all. I’ve observed these dramatic changes all within a few years of my lifetime. My concern is how much longer can California’s wildflower seed reservoirs survive these unprecedented times?
struggle to bloom
the hills of Gorman
Read VOGUE magazine’s insightful article detailing more at California’s Wildflowers Under Siege.