93,000 acres from the coastal mountains to the sea, the historic Irvine Ranch is a paradise of Open Space and natural beauty in Orange County, California. Its rich and vibrant history chronicles the perseverance, dedication and challenges of the early settlers. The land that would later become The Irvine Ranch® was nine miles wide, 22 miles long, stretching from the mountains near the present-day Cleveland National Forest, west to the Pacific Ocean and from Newport Beach south to Laguna Beach. Today over 50,000 acres, more than half of the original 93,000 acres of this precious land, is permanently protected and preserved as Open Space.
Archaeological evidence of early campsites and shelters suggests that prehistoric man may have first inhabited the area over 10,000 years ago.Then, some 2,000 years ago, around the time of ancient Rome, the Acjachemen-Juaneño and the Gabrielino-Tongva Indians settled in, establishing dozens of villages.
The face of the land would change when Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola arrived in Southern California in July 1769. Portola was accompanied by Father Junipero Serra and a quarter-mile column of men and livestock. Soon, forts and missions were established along the coast. By 1800, California was divided into large parcels of land surrounding each mission and the range was covered with herds of cattle.
What would later become The Irvine Ranch, first began to take shape in 1810, when the Spanish Governor of California granted 62,000 acres on the east bank of the Santa Ana River to Jose Antonio Yorba and his nephew Juan Peralta, who created Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana.
When Mexico finally gained its freedom from Spain in 1821, it also gained California. In the 1830s, the mission lands were divided up and given away to fortunate petitioners like rancher Don Jose Andres Sepulveda. He received two such grants to form Rancho San Joaquin, acreage that would one day become part of The Irvine Ranch.
In July 1846, Teosidio Yorba was granted title to Rancho Lomas de Santiago, a prime 10,000-acre parcel of land in what is now eastern Orange County. That very same day a force of U.S. Marines and sailors raised the Stars and Stripes over the town of Monterey, a few hundred miles up the coast and the Mexican-American War began.
The war ended in 1848 and California became part of the victorious United States. But it wasn’t until 1849, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, that the rest of the country discovered California. The Gold Rush brought hundreds of thousands of people to the state, instantly doubling the population.
While the Civil War raged in the rest of America, a great drought overtook Southern California. Ranges burned. Herds perished. Cattlemen went broke. There were scores of eager buyers from the east, including James Irvine, a Scottish-Irishman, who had arrived in California at the time of the Gold Rush, a poor, but hardworking man. He soon became a successful merchant in San Francisco and partnered with Llewellyn Bixby and Benjamin and Thomas Flint to buy land in Southern California.
In 1864, James Irvine and his three partners would set in motion a chain of events that would preserve a portion of this precious land forever. What were once Rancho San Joaquin, Rancho Lomas de Santiago and a piece of Rancho Santiago Santa Ana in 1866, became The Irvine Ranch, a giant parcel of land that sold at the time for about 50 cents an acre.
Back in the days of the Spanish land grants, in order to obtain a grant, a case had to be presented to an agent of the king, ensuring a solid plan was in place to “care for the land”. This early commitment to stewardship became a permanent guiding principle for The Irvine Ranch.
James Irvine bought out his partners in 1876, while dividing his time between his home in San Francisco and The Ranch down south. When James Irvine died unexpectedly in 1886, he left the ranch to his son James, Jr., who had just turned 18.
James Irvine, Jr.’s Irvine Ranch became the Irvine Company® when it was incorporated in 1894. The land became treasured as a precious and nonrenewable resource, an asset not to be sold or squandered for short-term gain, but to be held and used in ways that were carefully planned.
A historic decision was made to conduct an experiment in master planning. In 1960, acclaimed architect and urban planner William Pereira was commissioned to create an unprecedented vision for the entire Irvine Ranch and to create a new city – Irvine. As a centerpiece to the plan, the Company contributed 1,000 acres to the University of California, which would later become UC Irvine.
The Company began the task of redefining the entire concept of urban planning by creating model communities that offered a balanced mix of homes, businesses, shopping, schools, parks and Open Space.
Completed after nearly 10 years of analysis and study, the original master plan called for 10,400 acres, roughly 11% of the 93,000-acre Ranch, to be set-aside as parks and Open Space land.
The land, and the Open Space, gained a powerful partner in 1977 when Donald Bren became a shareholder in the Irvine Company. He became a champion of the implementation of long-term community master planning and master building. He believed that the 10,400 acres designated as Open Space and parklands in the original plan were not nearly enough and he set out to expand it.
In 1979, the Company transferred 2,791 acres of land to the State of California, which in turn became Crystal Cove State Park, preserving three and a half miles of precious coastline and priceless biological resources in the coastal foothills.
Under Donald Bren’s guidance and concurrence by Irvine family member Joan Irvine Smith, a landmark Open Space Initiative began. The philosophy of Open Space planning now blossomed.
During the 1980s, implementing visionary environmental entrepreneurial leadership, the Irvine Company and the City of Irvine worked closely together on an unprecedented Open Space Initiative, adding thousands of acres until more than one-third of the City of Irvine was designated for preservation. Irvine voters overwhelmingly approved the initiative in 1988, securing an Open Space legacy for their city like no other.
In 1990, The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest and most successful non-profit land preservation organizations in the world, and the Irvine Company teamed up to study the land and create a comprehensive stewardship plan for The Ranch’s Open Space.
Expanding its Open Space contributions exponentially, in 1996 the Irvine Company contributed 21,000 acres to The Nature Reserve of Orange County, thus creating a massive contiguous habitat area containing a wide variety of rare plant and animal species and the vital eco-systems necessary to support their survival.
In 2001, a crown jewel in the Open Space Initiative was laid when the Irvine Company designated 11,000 acres of pristine Open Space for permanent protection in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. This gift was the final link in a contiguous sweep of Open Space from the coastal mountains to the sea on the historic Irvine Ranch.
To help care for it all, the Irvine Company established and provided early funding for the Irvine Company Stewardship Fund to support long-term management, preservation and restoration of these precious natural resources and to encourage public access to them. And to support landowners and managers in their efforts, in 2005 the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve Trust was created to help ensure comprehensive protection and public access to the preserved lands. The trust was soon renamed the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, reflecting its increasingly active role in stewardship of the lands.
That same year, in a celebration at Irvine Regional Park, Donald Bren announced the completion of the spectacular 22-mile Mountains to Sea Trail, stretching from Weir Canyon to Upper Newport Bay. And then something extraordinary happened. In recognition of the wide variety of rare and endangered plants and animals and the unique habitats and geological features contained on the land, nearly 40,000 acres of the preserved lands were designated a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2006, following rigorous scientific review.
Two years later, the same lands were named a California Natural Landmark. It was the first such designation and marked the beginning of a new program for the state. Both Natural Landmark programs recognize and encourage the conservation of places that contain outstanding biological and geological resources.
In 2010, fulfilling a long-term pledge to eventually turn over all preserved lands and Open Space to public ownership, the Irvine Company designated the final 20,000 acres it still owned to the County of Orange – bringing the total contribution of permanently preserved land to more than 50,000 acres, representing more than half of the original 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch.
The land is now one of the largest urban Open Spaces in the United States – larger than many national parks. More than 3 million people live less than 30 minutes from the pristine beauty of the wilderness. Stretching from the coastal mountains to the sea are oak woodlands, vast canyons and hillsides filled with wildflowers and wildlife.
Today, the land is publicly owned, and in the caring hands of a group of people dedicated to remaining responsible stewards and ensuring that future generations may enjoy this paradise of Open Space land and natural beauty forever.