NORTH MONTEREY COUNTY — In 2008, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) purchased a 167-acre property at the upper end of the Moro Cojo watershed.
In partnership with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, Caltrans began to clean it up — clearing out debris and around 800 tons of refuse, including a long-forgotten air strip.
In the final act of a years-long collaboration, Caltrans was finally able to sign over the property, known as the Elkhorn Highlands Reserve, to the Elkhorn Slough Foundation at a dedication ceremony late Monday morning.
“We’re here to celebrate a major milestone,” said Elkhorn Slough Reserve Manager Dave Feliz. “It’s an amazing accomplishment that sets the stage for much more to come.”
The Elkhorn Highlands Reserve, an island habitat between other protected lands in the Ekhorn Slough area, is home to many rare and sensitive native plant species. It encompasses six acres of wetlands, providing a home for many threatened species, including the endangered California tiger salamander.
“It’s hard to find a greater density of species in plants and animals in one place,” said Elkhorn Slough Foundation Executive Director Mark Silberstein.
The mitigation transfer was envisioned to offset environmental impacts of the Highway 101 Prunedale Improvement Project. The stretch of freeway had for many years been known for its high rate of traffic collisions, prompting changes to some of the surrounding natural land.
Silberstein noted on Monday that the unique transfer had only been possible by all agencies working together and finding common ground.
“This kind of work doesn’t happen without a network of partners,” he said. “It requires vision, patience and persistence on everyone’s part.”
Silberstein and Feliz welcomed those partners as well as various other visitors to the ceremony, which took place at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. One was Luis Alejo, Monterey County supervisor and former California Assemblyman. Alejo was instrumental in leading efforts to pass a bill authorizing agencies such as Caltrans to transfer property and funds to certain nonprofit organizations.
“It’s a historic day,” Alejo said. “Monterey County is perhaps the first place to create this kind of a partnership with the state. And not only the transfer of land, but also the endowment funds to help with its management.”
Other speakers present at the ceremony included Richard Rosales, Caltrans Deputy Director of Project Management, and Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips. After the ceremony concluded, Elkhorn Slough staff led people on a walk around the newly protected land a few miles away.
“This is a real step forward in the protection of this watershed,” Silberstein said.
For information on the Elkhorn Highlands Reserve, visit elkhornslough.org.