Excerpt from A History of Starr Ranch Sanctuary, by Molly Blumer, Intern, Spring 1998


Starr Ranch LandscapeContinuity in Southern California's Orange County landscape is a rare thing. Many native Orange Countians can remember a view, or a place that has been forever altered if not totally obliterated by suburban development. Few places remain as they appeared a hundred years ago. The National Audubon Society's Starr Ranch Sanctuary is one of those landscapes, and this is the story of those who have lived and worked among these hills over the centuries.

The history behind the 4,000 acres that comprise the Starr Ranch Sanctuary crosses cultures and spans centuries. Roughly 8,000-1,200 years ago, the foothills and canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains were home to pre-historic Indians. Centuries later, in 1776, the area came under the authority of the Spanish Catholic Church. The Native American Indians encountered by the Padres were associated with the nearby missions and called the Luiseño and Juaneño tribes. Members of these tribes were relocated to the missions from their villages, including a winter camp located in the Sanctuary's Upper Bell Canyon. Upon Mexican independence from Spain, vast tracts of land, which included the Sanctuary, were granted by the Mexican government to select families. These generous land grants gave rise to a small circle of property rich Dons, whose Rancho culture romanticized Mexico's brief rule. In 1882 the Sanctuary land was sold by Don Juan Forster's heirs and the pasture lands of Rancho Mission Viejo (historically spelled Rancho Misión Vieja), came under the management of the O'Neill's, one of Orange County's historic families. Upon California's statehood, land not owned by ranchers and the Southern Pacific Railroad was declared public and parceled out by the Bureau of Land Management to homesteaders. Homestead families ran cattle, grew fruit crops and raised bees, sharing their land in these canyons with the grizzly bear and golden eagle. Relics of the Sanctuary's past remain on the land today, including ancient mortar rocks for grinding acorns, wire cattle fences, and homestead foundations.

From 1927 to 1938, an independent oil man and millionaire by the name of Eugene Grant Starr purchased various parcels of Bell Canyon land from homesteaders and Rancho Mission Viejo. Gene's 10,097 acre gentleman's ranch served as a secluded and rustic hunting retreat for thirty-six years until his death in 1963. In 1973, a gift deed fulfilled the charitable intentions of The Eugene and Applin Starr Foundation when the estate entrusted 3,900 acres of the ranch to the stewardship of the National Audubon Society. The remaining ranch acreage was purchased by private housing developers and also the Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks Department for the creation of the 5,500 acre Caspers Regional Park. Today, the Sanctuary lies on the border between the Dove Canyon golfcourse community and...the 60,000 acre Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest and Caspers Regional Park.

Eugene Grant Starr

Eugene Grant StarrIn a 1926 letter advertising Belle Canyon, Mrs. Minnie Justis described her property as being "ideal for a country hunting club, as there are many excellent sites for a large hunting lodge and cabins and there is hunting of all kinds, including dove, quail, deer, rabbits, mountain lions, coyotes, coons, fox and everything of this nature. This is a good grain and cattle ranch, as well as other features that have been mentioned, and could be made into a self-supporting club, catering to high-class patrons and has been held for this purpose for a good many years." Indeed, Eugene Starr, a wealthy oil man and Democrat from Los Angeles was just the kind of "high-class patron" and hunting enthusiast that she was referring to. He and his partner Jack Hare purchased 300 acres of property from the Joplin family in 1927, and an additional 676 acres of adjoining land from Mrs. Minnie Justice in 1929.

In November of 1938, Starr bought out his partner Jack Hare. That winter, catastrophic storms raged February 28- March 3, dropping 11 inches and killing 58 local people, but this deluge did not dissuade Starr from making additional purchases in the area. That year, he purchased 4,412 acres of Rancho Mission Viejo land from The Santa Margarita Company, and another adjoining 4,554 acres in 1941. His total holdings were reported to cover 10,097 acres, including the San Juan Canyon Hot Springs Resort.

The 20's were an age of Western romanticism typified and exulted by the popular novels of Zane Grey. Railroad lines carried valley dwellers up into canyon side resorts replete with ballrooms and bungalows that were nestled among the San Gabriel and Santa Ana Mountains. Secluded retreats in the foothills such as the Starr Ranch were in vogue among the elite of Pasadena and Los Angeles. Nonetheless, Starr and Hare's 1927 purchase of 300 acres for $30,000 from the Joplin family prompted an article in the Santa Ana Evening Register to speculate on the increasing value of Orange County land.

By 1950, much of Orange County was under agricultural production, and land was concentrated in the hands of a few major families. The 60,000 acre Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest covered the northern part of the county while the southern portion was dominated by ranchers Irvine, O'Neill, Reeves, and Moulton, whose combined Orange County properties totaled 165,000 acres. Starr's considerable wealth and 10,097 acres set him among the ranks of these major landowners but unlike these commercial ranchers, Gene Starr used his property purely for recreation and seclusion...

Vaqueros Branding Cattle c.1900Ranch managers were entrusted by Gene to tend to the cattle, farm animals, groves and fields, and look after the ranch buildings in his absence. Mr. Curt Preusker was the main ranch manager for Starr from 1927 to 1963...

Mr. and Mrs. Preusker lived on the ranch for thirty-six years, and were present at the time when Audubon became steward of the property. In their time here they saw Starr Ranch change from a secluded get-away to a wildlife sanctuary bordered by the Rancho Santa Margarita residential community. They loved the Starr ranch dearly and are remembered for their commitment and appreciation of this land...

The National Audubon Society

The National Audubon Society's Starr Ranch Sanctuary is named after Eugene Grant Starr, born February 22, -1889 in Tucson, AZ. He died a multi-millionaire at the age of 75 on August 6, 1963, leaving few records to document his considerable success and presumably no knowledge of what would become of his ranch property. He had no heirs and was survived by his brother Richard, and wife, Applin Starr.

In 1966, Mrs. Applin Starr died, three years after her husband Gene. She and her husband had organized the Eugene and Applin Starr Foundation. The charitable intentions of the Starr's were fulfilled in May of 1973, when the Board of the Eugene and Applin Starr Foundation, co-chaired by Trustees Mr. John E. Clay, Mrs. June Eddy, and Wayne R. Hackett, resolved to convey a 3,900 acre Gift Deed to the National Audubon Society. The Gift Deed was accepted by the Audubon Society under the direction of "Agee" Shelton. The southern 5,500 acres of the Starr Ranch estate would be sold by the foundation in 1974, for $4.4 million dollars under the leadership of Ron Casper. This purchase prompted the creation of Caspers Regional Park, which is managed by the County Parks, Beaches and Harbors Department. [Finally, the remaining 873 acres were sold privately and are now the Dove Canyon development.]

Starr Ranch Sanctuary

Native AmericansThe land that had once been a Native American Indian winter camp, a pasture for a famous Don, homesteads for prominent pioneers, and part of Rancho Mission Viejo, briefly came into the hands of an oil millionaire, and narrowly escaped its fate as a motorcycle race course, to finally come into the care of the National Audubon Society. National Audubon Society Sanctuaries are often run by resident land managers who are responsible for the care of the land and its restoration if appropriate. The Starr Ranch Sanctuary was established in 1973, and Paul and Helen Colburn served briefly as the first interim Audubon caretakers. From 1973 to 1977, Norman and Bev McIntosh left their positions as managers of Audubon's Richardson Bay Sanctuary to guide Starr Ranch through its first years... During these years, professor Charlie Collins initiated the first scientific research at the Sanctuary. His senior and masters students documented the flora and fauna characteristic of the area, and established a record for future research.

During these first years, research at the Sanctuary was minimal due to access problems. Mr. Jim Davis, who still owned the majority of the land he eventually sold to the Dove Canyon developers, often denied access to the Sanctuary through his property. A rough road that connects the Sanctuary to the Ortega Highway, through Caspers Park was relied upon for access. The road parallels Bell Canyon Creek and is often impassable, which forced researchers to hike into the Sanctuary.

The McIntosh's were succeeded by Jeffrey Froke, his wife Martha and son Ben. Jeff managed the Sanctuary from 1978-1988. In 1985, Pete DeSimone came to the Sanctuary to work as assistant manager, and concentrated his efforts on the remodeling and restoration of the ranch buildings. Upon Jeff's departure in 1988, Pete became Sanctuary Manager and took up the hotly contested struggle over land use and development that fueled the Orange County boom years in the 1980's. As an Audubon manager and conservationist, keenly aware of the value of Southern California's unique habitats, such as the coastal sage scrub, he voiced scientifically based arguments for the preservation and sustainable development of open lands in Orange County.

Today, Pete is an important participant in the California Natural Communities Conservation Program, which was implemented to plan for regional multi-species and multi-habitat protection. Sandy DeSimone works full-time at the Sanctuary as director of Research and Education. She conducted her thesis and dissertation research here and has published papers on the endangered coastal sage scrub. Her scientific study of the artichoke thistle (Cynara cardunculus), which has invaded the Sanctuary, is a valuable contribution to the literature on sustainable approaches to large scale weed abatement.

Long-time researchers who have conducted their studies at the Sanctuary include Dave Bontrager, Peter Bloom, and Mary Jo Elpers. Dave Bontrager is an authority on the California Gnatcatcher, a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This bird prefers the coastal sage scrub habitat, which is protected within the Sanctuary, but rapidly dwindling elsewhere due to development pressures. Pete Bloom conducted the first raptor surveys and Barn Owl banding projects at the Sanctuary with assistance from Mike McCrary. Mr. Bloom continues to band raptor chicks at Starr Ranch, and small, public groups are invited to witness the work of field biology and learn about raptors on banding field trips. Mary Jo Elpers has conducted important Scrub Jay research here since 1980, and has cultivated an intimate expertise on this raucous bird through her extensive field work.

Over the years, hard work from volunteers and managers has made rustic Starr Ranch a well-kept and accommodating research station. In recognition of the need for public access to Orange County native habitat, a gradual increase in public programs is planned for the Sanctuary, but public access is limited in an effort to preserve its integrity as a scientific research station.