This article appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Landmarks, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County’s newsletter.
Getting a wildlife tunnel built under Highway 17 is the most complex, highest risk project the Land Trust has ever undertaken. The good news is that we are getting closer and closer – because of the support and money we are able to bring to the table. There isn’t really any bad news, but the project remains complex and high risk – which means there is no certainty about when it will be completed.
This project has always proceeded on two tracks. Track 1 is the protection of the land on either side of Laurel Curve, the best place to build a tunnel under the highway. The map here shows you why it is the best place. It shows the wild animals hit at Laurel Curve over the past ten years. Almost half of all wildlife hit on Highway 17 are hit at Laurel Curve – right where the tunnel will be built. Deer, bobcats, foxes, and mountain lions already cross there – or die trying.
Last year we protected 290 acres on the eastern side of the highway. We now have an option to protect 170 acres on the western side (the Marywood property on the map) – and have until September to raise the funds to buy an easement, which will permanently protect this land from development. With that purchase, we will have protected the land necessary to get the tunnel built.
Track 2 is getting Caltrans to build the tunnel. We have been working on that in parallel with our land protection efforts. Building a tunnel under Highway 17 wasn’t on Caltrans’ radar when we started this project – but it sure is now. We have been working our way diligently through their process. We have met with Caltrans biologists, engineers, and executive staff. We are working closely with Assemblymember Mark Stone to move this project through the decision-making process. We are talking with state and foundation funders. Inch by inch we are making progress, but we cannot tell you yet that the tunnel has been approved and funded or when it will be built. Our best guess/hope is that it could be approved by Caltrans this year and built by 2019.
The Last Lion Killed at Laurel Curve
The last mountain lion killed at Laurel Curve was in October 2014 (another was killed around Christmas near Los Gatos). We had been watching the Laurel Curve lion on our wildlife cameras for months. He roamed on the east side of the highway. Time and time again, he reached the highway and turned around. Then we saw a female lion on the west side of the highway. We started calling them Romeo and Juliet, not thinking of the tragic end to that story.
Then one day our Romeo tried to cross the highway. We have the last photo of him, an hour or so before he was hit and killed. He died a hundred yards from where we’re working to build the wildlife tunnel. We want him to be the last lion killed there.