Fire fund established to restore and reopen the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve

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Visitors center has a burnt gate at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in Murrieta. Courtesy photo

MURRIETA – This year marks 35 years since the legal formation of the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in Murrieta. Within this timeframe, other than controlled burns and one small grass fire on the Sylvan Meadows section in 2015, the site has escaped a major fire event, until Sept. 4, when the Tenaja Fire burned 2,000 acres on the reserve and has rendered the site closed to the public.

The assets impacted by the fire included fencing, bridges, gates, plant and animal habitats, the program stage, a storage unit, event equipment and benches.

“We owe the amazing Cal Fire firefighters our sincere gratitude who took a stand at the Visitor Center to save that structure as the fire came right up to it,” Ginger Greaves, executive director of nonprofit Santa Rosa Plateau Nature Education Foundation, said. The foundation is launching a major fundraising campaign to help restore and reopen the reserve.

SRPNEF’s mission is to educate and empower youth to appreciate, protect and preserve nature.

“We are working to create a new generation of environmental stewards; aware and equipped to understand how we must all work together to take care of our planet,” Greaves said.

It accomplishes this mission by funding and developing environmental education programs and projects in support of K-12 environmental programs for 10 school districts and communities in southwest Riverside County.  Some of the programs in their Habitat Studies and Restoration program are conducted at the reserve. Others are conducted in classrooms and in other protected and open space properties. The reserve and some of these assets were affected or destroyed in the fire.

“The Tenaja Fire has presented opportunities for us to work with the Plateau Management Committee to help restore and reopen the Reserve, educate the students about the fire; its biological effects on the lands, plants and animals and an opportunity to rally our communities to understand why we all have a stake in working together to reopen the reserve,” Greaves said.

“The Plateau Management Committee has been assessing the site and is hopeful with good rains many of the trees and chaparral will be revived.  However, please know the reserve will remain closed until the property is secure and access to trails can be managed. The biologists and land managers are looking for a couple of good rain storms for that to occur. We ask for the public’s patience as they complete their work to affect a safe reopening,” Rob Hicks, reserve interpreter for the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District, said.

The foundation is working closely with Riverside County Regional Parks and Open Space District and the agency partners of the Plateau Management Committee to understand the restoration priorities and has launched a fire fundraising effort to raise at least $100,000 to help restore the Reserve. To help kick off the fire fund, $10,000 was donated by the Community Foundation of Riverside and San Bernardino, $1,500 from the Roripaugh Family Foundation and $850 from the Bear Creek Ladies Luncheon. SRPNEF has raised approximately $25,000 to date towards its $100,000 goal.

There are a number of ways the community can help.

Donate online at www.gofundme.com/srpfirefund and share the GoFundMe site on Facebook. By text, contact “firefund” to (951) 900-3980. By check, donate to SRPNEF Fire Fund, P.O. Box 941, Murrieta 92564. All donations are 100% tax deductible.

Help by volunteering to secure the property for public safety and resource protection and to clean up the property when the time comes. Contact volunteer@srpnef.org for more information.

Dine out at Garage Brewing Co. in Old Town Temecula on Wednesdays and Thursdays and mention the SRP Fire Fund and 25% of each food ticket will be donated to the fund.

Save the date for Feb. 4 and visit Tresinos’s Italian Restaurant to support the SRP Fire Fund when a portion of all sales, plus a silent auction proceeds, will be donated to the fire fund.

The foundation invites classrooms, clubs and community organizations to create a Santa Rosa Plateau Fire Fund Project. Engage youth and community groups in a fundraising project to help raise funds needed to replace a bench, a gate, a bridge a fence section to protect the animals or to help rebuild the stage. Complete a fire fund project request at www.srpnef.org.

The plateau is an area of stunning biological diversity and rich human history. The reserve stands as an example of human foresight and cooperation in protecting a special part of shared heritage.

Protection of the unique site began in 1984, The Nature Conservancy of California, which is one of the Plateau Management Committee’s member agencies, recognized the diverse concentration of unique and rare species supported on the plateau lands and purchased 3,100 acres in two parcels from a real estate firm, KACOR. It was named the Santa Rosa Plateau Preserve. The two parcels included two historic adobe structures and vernal pools.

In the late 1980s, Ranpac Inc. of Temecula purchased 3,800 acres comprising most of the land between the two parcels of the Preserve. A specific plan for approximately 4,000 homes was created and citizens’ groups, Preserve Our Plateau and Save Our Plateau, were formed to protect the conservation values of the property. Awareness and moral support was widespread, but funds were scare; county, state and national agencies were unable to secure funding for a purchase that Ranpac would agree to for a fair market value price.

Seeking extensive and significant off-site mitigation opportunities for a new, large storage reservoir planned in the region, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California approached the organizations and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service with an offer to provide $15.4 million toward a purchase in exchange for mitigation credits for their future Diamond Valley lake project. Riverside County nearly matched that funding with $15 million; the California’s Wildlife Conservation Board provided $5 million from Proposition 117 Mountain Lion Initiative funds proposed by former state Sen. Robert Presley. The Nature Conservancy handled negotiations and provided closing costs. In December 1994, each entity purchased its own property, but the entire site – now known collectively as the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve – is now managed as one biological unit.

In 1996 the Visitor Center was built. The management of the visitor services, interpretive services and ranger management became the responsibility of the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District, Metropolitan Water District also provided a $90,000 grant to provide for an education program and support the operations of the Visitor Center. RivCoParks is one of the two land owners of the Reserve, along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. RivCoParks is also responsible for management of the 40-mile trail system. In 2003, the nonprofit Santa Rosa Plateau Nature Education Foundation was formed to sustain the education program initially funded by MWD. The foundation continues to partner with RivCoParks to fund the original 3rd grade program while also developing and funding nature education programs for youth in grades 4-12 serving 10 local school districts.

In 2006, The Nature Conservancy sold its holdings to California Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as responsibility for resource management of all biological aspects of the reserve. They also sold the lands they had purchased to create an open-space corridor linking the reserve with the 140,000 acre Cleveland National Forest to the north to CFW. The intent of the “Tenaja Wildlife Corridor Project” is to protect and provide a linkage between the two areas for the movement of animals. TNC remains a member of the Plateau Management Committee as it manages an easement over the land to ensure the property remains protected.

Additional purchases have expanded the Plateau’s protected size to nearly 11,000 acres. Annually more than 50,000 day-use visitors travel to the reserve for hiking, photography and nature study. Visitors may also use certain designated trails for horseback riding and mountain biking.

The reserve is also the site of two historical adobes, the oldest surviving adobe structures in Riverside County. The Moreno Adobe, the older of the two, was constructed in 1845 when Juan Moreno moved 100 head of cattle to the Plateau. According to a map dated 1846, the structure originally consisted of four rooms and sat upon 48,000 acres granted to Senor Moreno by Pio Pico; the last Mexican governor of the territory of California. Three rooms washed away in a heavy winter storm in 1884. The adobe sites were not affected by the Tenaja Fire.

Of the more than 120 sensitive species of plants and animals in the Inland Empire, 59 of them can be found on the Santa Rosa Plateau. California newts and southwestern pond turtles survive in bedrock-lined pools of the steam systems (the infrastructure for a pond turtle research project was destroyed in the Tenaja Fire, and native wildflowers, some highly endangered, draw thousands of spring-time visitors. Vernal pools, the seasonal, shallow ponds which collect on rare, volcanic lava flow mesas, support endemic fairy shrimp and wintering waterfowl.

Engelmann oaks, a rare, semi-deciduous species with blue-gray leaves and contorted braches, are found in abundance among the rolling grassland prairie. Badgers, horned lizards, mountain lions, bobcats, gray fox and deer are found on the Plateau, as are more than 200 species of birds.

“Just as we are all weeping about the effects of the fire on our magical place, we are equally encouraged by the prospect of witnessing nature’s renewal and thankful for a grateful community that have reached out to help restore and reopen it,” Greaves said. “The fire is also an important teaching moment as we’ll be teaching the students about both the wrath, and the subsequent renewal prospects, of fire on our natural world, so much to learn and talk about.”

The Santa Rosa Plateau Nature Education Foundation’s mission to educate and empower youth to appreciate preserve and protect nature. More information about the Foundation can be found at www.srpnef.org.

Submitted by Santa Rosa Plateau Nature Education Foundation.