If the Sierra Nevada mountains are California’s spine, the Transverse Range is its bulging disc.
Tectonic pressure has squeezed this landscape against the grain — radiating east and west, defying the north-south orientation of the state’s mountains — creating a rocky front of steep slopes and broad valleys stretching from the western Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean.
The region connects California’s north to its south, providing a rare, undeveloped, east-west haven between the teeming population centers of the Los Angeles basin and the San Joaquin Valley.
Its topographic rarity is rivaled only by its diversity of animals and plants. Condors, mountain lions, salamanders, legless lizards and the endangered Bakersfield cactus are among the two dozen sensitive species that inhabit it.
This region is such a jumble of desert, snowy mountains and broad oak woodland — described as a “complicated mess” by one evolutionary biologist — that it has long tantalized ecologists.
Conservationists have for decades envisioned this region in the Tehachapi Mountains as a great crossroads: Preserve it, limit human uses and stitch it together with already protected land around it to allow wildlife to move freely once again, unimpeded.
Now that ideal, sometimes called “rewilding,” is well on its way to being realized. At the end of 2021, The Nature Conservancy finalized the latest land purchase in the Frank and Joan Randall Preserve.
Buying 72,000 acres from various owners required what acquisition of real estate in Southern California always requires: lots and lots of money — in this case, more than $65 million, gathered over a decade. Included is about $15 million in state grants and partnerships.
The 112 square miles of land — an expanse a bit larger than the city of Sacramento — is less than two hours north of Los Angeles and about 30 miles east of Bakersfield. Its topography ranges from the low-lying desert to nearly 7,000 feet at the top of Bear Mountain. Its ecological value is maximized by its linkage to adjacent protected areas: the federal Carrizo Plain National Monument, Wind Wolves Preserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy, and nearly a quarter-million acres of conservation easements in the privately-held Tejon Ranch.
This land is far from pristine. People have worked it for centuries and left their mark, and the tract will not be managed as a refuge: Livestock has grazed here for more than 150 years, and The Nature Conservancy says it will continue to allow ranching on about 90% of the preserve.
But the consolidation of protected land into an expansive preserve is what drew the Randalls to donate $50 million to the cause, preserving childhood memories of exploring California’s open spaces.
"When I was 10 years old, I used to drive up to Lake Tahoe with my father. We would go up through the Owens Valley and see Mount Whitney on the left side, go to Yosemite, and spend time fishing,” said Frank Randall, 91, a retired commercial real estate developer and philanthropist from Newport Beach. The couple also recently donated $50 million to buy and conserve Newport Beach’s ocean-view Banning Ranch as a public park.
“After World War II we resumed our trips and I began to see huge changes taking place. I thought, ‘That’s too bad that this is happening.’”
The Randall Preserve bears the marks of human activity. The land is scarred from limestone mining and by remnants of a large-scale kiln, and it has nine working cattle ranches.
Livestock grazing can be a red flag in the West, where more than a century of overgrazing on public lands has done irreparable damage to vast ranges and water sources. The Nature Conservancy says it will continue to allow grazing at the Randall Preserve, but it will be managed as a tool to control weeds and wildfire.
Elsewhere extensive fences are installed along a shallow creek, intended to keep cattle from damaging the sensitive water source. On a recent day it was clear that livestock had been trampling through the area. Now that the ranch has been folded into the preserve, Principe said thoughtful livestock grazing will be in place.