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The story of how the tunnel will be built

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Landmarks, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County’s newsletter.

Nine years ago, the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose asked us if we would be interested in protecting their 130-acre retreat center off Glenwood Road. They needed funds for repairs and ongoing maintenance – and they didn’t want to have to sell it because they couldn’t afford its upkeep.

We went to take a look. A meadow, second-growth redwoods, the headwaters of Bean Creek, a tributary of the San Lorenzo. There was “conservation value,” the way we assess property, but we didn’t think we could raise the money. We had just raised funds to protect the first major Sandhills property and this one didn’t have the “star power” it takes to raise private funds.

Five years passed and the nuns practiced the virtue of patience. During those five years, the Land Trust developed our Conservation Blueprint, which identified the need for wildlife to be able to safely move between the great wildlands that our county is still blessed to have. Highway 17 is the Berlin Wall that mountain lions, deer and other animals have to cross, and we knew that, one day, we’d have to help them. It was a “one-day” goal at that point.

Then we got lucky – or was it a miracle? A small ten-acre property across Highway 17 from the Sisters’ land fell out of escrow. Our Blueprint research had shown that the Laurel Curve area was an ideal place for a wildlife tunnel. We had to act fast or not at all, and this time we had, for the first time in our history, a small opportunity fund raised during our campaign to protect San Vicente Redwoods and Star Creek. We took a leap of faith and bought the property.

We got back in touch with the Sisters and went to work on another pressing matter – protecting 290 acres east of the highway, which the Blueprint had identified as having a high potential for development. We knew that Caltrans would never build a tunnel that funneled mountain lions into land filled with houses and their attendant temptations (goats, pets). The top unnatural causes of mountain lion deaths in California are being hit by vehicles and being shot by people who obtain depredation permits after the lions have killed livestock. We weren’t going to save them from cars and send them into a depredation trap.

More than 2,000 people contributed the funds to protect that property in 2014 – and our campaign to build a wildlife tunnel was launched.

Enter Caltrans

The Land Trust, of course, doesn’t have the capacity to build a tunnel under a major state highway in our county – Caltrans does. It took a few years of work (which is light-speed for an agency with Caltrans’ massive responsibilities), but last December, the California Transportation Commission allocated $3.1 million for the design and engineering of the tunnel – the state’s first commitment to the project. A lot of people did a lot of heavy-lifting to get us there, and doing the heaviest lifting were Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, Assemblymember Mark Stone, and the leadership and staff of Caltrans (which has some bigger fish to fry than a tunnel in one of the state’s smaller freeways in one the state’s smaller counties).

All this time, we were working to find the $1.6 million to buy an easement on the final property owned by the Sisters. It took time because the funding came from our donors and three state agencies – the Natural Resources Agency, the Wildlife Conservation Board, and the Coastal Conservancy. Three state agencies means three sets of reviews, in addition to the Land Trust and the Sisters.

Then one day, finally, it was done – the final property protected! Design and engineering work is underway and construction is scheduled for 2020. Oh, one more piece of the story. Measure D, our county’s transportation measure passed (another miracle, some would say), and it includes $5 million for construction of the tunnel. The Land Trust has pledged $3 million for construction and has raised $2 million of that during our Great Campaign. (Yes, we need $1 million more before this story is over.)

Our thanks to everyone – and it took everyone – who made all this possible. Especially to the Sisters (Sister Barbara, Sister Jeanette, all of them) who love their land and the creatures they share it with, who patiently waited while we put all the pieces into place, and who live by their motto to “care for all creation.” Together, that is what we are doing.   

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