MRCA to acquire the upper Escondido waterfall along with 88 additional acres

This acquisition map for Escondido Canyon Park shows the parcels (outlined in red) in the process of being purchased by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), headed by Joe Edmiston. Contributed Map

For years, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), headed by Joe Edmiston, has owned the first in a series of two waterfalls at Escondido Canyon Park — the 50-foot tall waterfalls — an extremely popular hiking destination for Malibu visitors. The agency is now in the process of acquiring four parcels of privately-owned land just above the current park boundary that will give them ownership of the 150-foot tall upper waterfalls.

Over the years, many hikers have ventured up to the larger falls even though it’s a steep climb, and they were technically trespassing on private property.

On Feb. 17, California’s Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) announced 51 projects it had selected to receive grant funding. Among the recipients is the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), who received $1.5 million “to [help] acquire approximately 88 acres of land for the protection of threatened and endangered habitat and to provide for future wildlife-oriented, public-use opportunities located near Malibu in LA County.”

It turns out that the agency set its sights on four parcels of land just above the first set of Escondido Falls (4465-004-013, -072, -075 and -080), in unincorporated LA County. Calling it the “Upper Escondido Canyon Park Acquisition Project,” MRCA writes that it’s part of its “long term efforts to preserve and protect Escondido Canyon in Malibu as part of the public coastal recreational opportunities within the larger Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA).”

The total project cost is $4.835 million — the fair market value of the property stated in an appraisal dated Jan. 13, 2022, and approved by the California Department of General Services. The MRCA has been busy cobbling together a series of grants to come up with that total amount.

Besides the $1.5 million grant it just received from WCB, the MRCA has also obtained $1 million from a California Natural Resources Agency Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Grant. The amount of $1.35 million will come from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), the sister organization also run by Joe Edmiston.

“The landowner offered a bargain price of $985K” according to the MRCA staff report. “The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit organization, holds an option agreement on the property that expires on March 31, 2023. TPL is confident the landowner would grant additional time of up to two or three months to close the transaction.”

According to the MRCA, “The Project acquires and protects 88 acres of strategic open space and high-quality habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains for special status species, enhancing climate resilience, and expanding public use of Escondido Canyon Park and the multi-use Escondido Falls Trail, that are among the most highly visited areas in the SMMNRA, especially by members of historically underrepresented communities residing in the greater LA Metropolitan Area.”

The staff report continued, “The Project also creates additional passive recreational opportunities in the area— visitors can come to Escondido Beach to escape the inland heat, and, if so inclined, easily access a robust urban/wildland trail system, including this portion of the Coastal Slope Trail, that leads them on a short, moderate and shaded hike all the way to Escondido Falls, the tallest waterfalls in the Santa Monica Mountains, and right back to Escondido Beach without ever having to move their car from the free parking space they secured on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).”

“The property also contributes to a significant east-west habitat linkage along the coastal slope between SMMNRA protected lands and Escondido Canyon Park…”

MRCA staff is in discussion regarding long-term management of the Project with the National Park Service (NPS) under a cooperative management agreement with SMMC, NPS, State Parks and MRCA. The proposed project will maintain the open space character of the area; and the stated purpose of the acquisition is to “preserve the land in its natural condition.”

The staff report never specifically mentions anything about acquiring the upper waterfalls, but the maps indicate that they are included.

The upper, taller waterfalls require a steep, slippery hike from the lower falls, which can be a safety concern. Escondido Canyon Park is no stranger to Malibu Search & Rescue: In 2012, 12 emergency rescues took place at the falls, more than any other location in Malibu.

“Injuries on the lower falls can range from dislocated shoulders to broken arms, legs or shins,” according to SAR head David Katz in a past interview. “The upper falls tend to be either stranded hikers or head and back injuries. The most serious injuries require an airlift by helicopter.”

In the past, hikers had been asked not to climb to the upper falls to “preserve the fragile habitat and avoid the risk of serious fall injuries.” Once the upper falls become open to the public, it’ll be interesting to see if that policy changes.