The saga of this underappreciated oasis of open space continues to play out.

South of Ontario in the Inland Empire lies what used to be 20,000 acres of dairies as well as federal land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The federal interest derives from the Prado Dam on the Santa Ana River in Corona, which has a large “inundation area” behind it needed for flood control.

Dairy lands in the northern part of the basin are being displaced by development. Toward the south, a low-lying area owned by the Army Corps, is drained by Mill and Chino Creeks and the Santa Ana River.  Decades ago, the Corps leased most of these holdings to the County of San Bernardino for Prado Regional Park. These 2,000 acres now contain recreational uses––golf, shooting, RV camping, fishing – as well as commercial subleases and much open space. While degraded, the open space has unlimited restoration potential which could recreate an otherwise vanished landscape.  

Under law, the federal land must be used for flood control, recreation, and wildlife purposes. Under the auspices of the Orange County Water District, wetlands have been restored, and the endangered least Bell’s vireos has rebounded – an Endangered Species Act success story. 

The Corps released a draft master plan for its holdings in 2006, but it was flawed due to an overly narrow focus on wetlands. EHL commented that an ecosystem approach including the adjacent uplands was needed. The Corps never completed its master plan, though this year it released a welcome feasibility study for restoring hundreds of acres along creek channels.

Given the void of federal master planning, in 2012, the County of San Bernardino proposed a “Land Transformation” for expansion and funding of Prado Regional Park. Having purchased about 350 acres of dairy land for agricultural preservation with monies from State Proposition 70, the County would sell these parcels for development and replace them with dairy lands adjacent to Prado Regional Park. It also proposes land swaps with Orange County and the Army Corps that would result in its holding easements over not only the replacement lands but also over the entirety of Prado Regional Park. Due to sale of the now-appreciated diary land, large sums would also be available for open space, habitat management, and restoration. 

While creative if not brilliant from a real estate perspective, EHL had questions over the proper disposition of Proposition 70 funds and the ultimate uses of the federal lands, such as conversion to ball fields or OHV tracks. These uncertainties triggered litigation from EHL. But during negotiations, a shared vision emerged for compatible recreational improvements and an ambitious conservation program. This vision was memorialized in a settlement agreement that EHL views as a valid substitute for the master plan the Corps never produced.

The settlement agreement phased out incompatible commercial uses, reconfigured the golf course away from Chino Creek, and provided for connectivity to Chino Hills State Park. There would limited expansion of active recreation beyond the current – and fully adequate – footprint. With approval of land the exchanges by federal and state agencies, permanent conservation of large tracts as natural open space via easement would be locked in, with passive recreation such as trails, and funds available for major habitat restoration. Importantly, the agreement mapped the various use areas.

However, despite concerted effort by the County during subsequent years, necessary federal and state approvals have not been obtained. Permanent easements were unacceptable to the Corps yet essential for Proposition 70 purposes. The major funding available from the land transactions could be lost as well as the permanent conservation of the settlement agreement.

Complicating the matter further, earlier this year, the County Parks Department began a new visioning process at the behest of Supervisorial offices that, at least initially, did not reflect the bucolic vision of the settlement agreement. High intensity uses were considered, to turn Prado Regional Park into a regional “destination” for urban recreation, with uses such as a concert venue, sports fields, international competitions, a “water park” with amusement rides, retail facilities, and a multiplicity of other uses which conflict with the natural setting and wildlife resources. At workshops, though, members of the public and EHL critiqued this approach. EHL advocated for the long-term community and economic value of natural open space. We are hopeful that a balanced proposal will emerge and that the areas designated for natural open space in the EHL settlement will continue to form the basis for ecosystem restoration.  

At this point, what is needed is a convergence of federal, local, and state interests to finally master plan the area and implement restoration, management, and low impact public use. There is ample room for both recreation and nature here. The County is a constructive partner, and park planning can integrate with the new Corps feasibility study. It would be tragic to lose the potential inherent in this rare remnant of nature in a vast landscape of development.