Location: Highway 17 at Laurel Curve, Santa Cruz County
Land Type: Intact habitat of redwood, mixed hardwood, tunnel under highway
Uses: wildlife connectivity
Access: For mountain lions and other wildlife only!
Owned by: Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and private landowners
Connectivity to Wild Lands
Completed in 2011, our Conservation Blueprint called for improved connectivity between protected lands. The Blueprint identified where linkages between habitats already exist, and those places where links should be created. Laurel Curve (seen here in a photo taken by a drone!) is a top priority on that second list. Highway 17 severs the Santa Cruz Mountains in two, making it a challenge for long-ranging species like the mountain lion to secure territory, mate or find food.
We talk about mountain lions a lot when it comes to this project, and that’s because their presence is indicative of a healthy ecosystem. These pictures were taken by our wildlife cameras on the night of June 1, 2014. They show a mountain lion walking the full length of the wildlife corridor, and turning around once it gets to the highway—exactly where we plan to build the tunnel!
Our Blueprint identified the land around Laurel Curve as having the most development potential in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with the possibility that dozens of homes could be built there—turning it into something like you see here. The resulting roads, traffic, lights, fencing, and pets would deter use by wildlife. The likely presence of animals like goats could actually set up a kind of “depredation trap,” essentially tempting mountain lions with goats, leading to depredation permits—the largest cause of mountain lion deaths in the state (vehicle collisions are the second largest cause).
Why Laurel Curve
Situated in Santa Cruz County about two miles from the summit of Highway 17, Laurel Curve is one of those long, seemingly unending bends. The undeveloped lands on either side of Laurel Curve teem with wildlife, and countless animals attempt to cross the highway there—risking their own lives and endangering motorists. We surveyed every possible location for a wildlife crossing and Laurel Curve is the most suitable location—by a long shot.
Corridor and Undercrossing
We’re not reinventing the wheel here. Caltrans has done projects like this before—and they work! A variety of wildlife have been documented using tunnels or bridges to cross highways 1, 68, 101, 152 and 280! And there have been very few animal-vehicle collisions in the vicinity of these structures since they were installed. When the time comes to actually build the crossing, Caltrans says it can be done without having to stop traffic!
Caltrans’ involvement in helping build the tunnel depends on the Land Trust’s success protecting land on either side of Laurel Curve. In January 2014, when a critical 10-acre property suddenly became available, we used our Opportunity Fund (raised as part of our Campaign to Protect 10,000 Acres) to buy it. This picture was taken on this 10-acre property—the site at which the tunnel will be built.
A Second Big Step
In December 2014 we took a second, much bigger step towards building the Highway 17 wildlife crossing, when we bought an additional 280-acres at Laurel Curve. The land is undeveloped, a mix of forests and creeks—and an ideal corridor between the larger blocks of habitat patches to the north and south.
What will it Cost?
The Land Trust currently has an option to buy the 280-acre parcel, which extends through the end of December, 2014. This tight timeline has us in a bit of a unique situation. While some of the funding—$1.3 million of it—will be drawn from our Opportunity Fund, $1.1 million will come as loans from the Gordon & Betty Moore and the David & Lucile Packard foundations—a first for the Land Trust. The Moore Foundation has also made a generous $600,000 grant toward the transaction, leaving us with $1 million left to raise!