One might not expect to see such a pristine slice of land sandwiched between the vast agricultural empire of the Central Valley and the teeming megalopolis to the south.

And yet there it is, 422 square miles of rich valley soils, forested mountains and awe-inspiring high-desert landscapes that make up Tejon Ranch.

This month, the historic ranch, the largest single expanse of private property in California, is marking its 175th anniversary.

"A lot has changed in 175 years," said Barry Zoeller, vice president of corporate communications and investor relations. "But at Tejon Ranch, a lot hasn't changed."

Indeed, millions of motorists pass by it every year on the concrete conduit known as Interstate 5. But relatively few Californians have experienced close-up the rugged beauty and astounding diversity of the 270,000-acre farming, cattle, recreation and real estate empire.

New, limited development is coming, but most of the landscape has remained relatively untouched, Zoeller said, and some 90 percent of the ranch will remain undeveloped.

The ranch's history includes a "legacy of experimentation, risk taking, stewardship, and using the land for the betterment of California," Zoeller said.

"Think about it:

"The history of Tejon parallels the history of Kern County and California."

The area played host to an impressive cast of characters, including trappers, settlers and frontiersmen, outlaws, the Camel Corps, Butterfield stagecoach lines, and Army dragoons, all of whom helped shaped California and the nation.

Of course that history, beginning with the ranch's formation under a Mexican Land Grant in 1843, two decades before the Civil War, marked the beginning of the displacement of several Native American tribes — including the Kitanemuk, Yokuts, Chumash, Tataviam, and Kawaiisu.

It was often an ugly chapter in the history of Kern County and California, and cannot be ignored as the chronicles of local development and settlement in the West are celebrated and shared.

The ranch got its name from Lt. Francisco Ruiz who called the region El Tejon, meaning badger, after his soldiers, sometime around 1806, found a dead badger at the mouth of the canyon. Ruiz also named Canada de las Uvas (Grapevine Canyon), because of the abundance of grapevines found there.

To this day, motorists call that steep grade on Interstate 5 "the Grapevine."

A story in The Californian published July 16, 1928 relates a tale of how Edward Beale bought the Tejon Ranch land from Mexico.

According to the story related by Tulare resident F.F. Latta, Judge T.A. Baker, the son of Bakersfield founder Col. Thomas Baker, told the tale of Alexis Godey, "companion of Kit Carson" and a guide to explorer John Fremont.

"At the end of the Mexican War and on the eve of California becoming a possession of the United States, a plan was laid by these men to obtain title to two ranches south of Bakersfield while the country was yet in the hands of Mexico."

According to the story, Godey was furnished with $3,000 and riding and exhausting multiple horses, rode from Fort Tejon to Mexico City, where he was able to purchase Tejon Ranch from Mexico.

"With the present-day methods of travel, it is almost impossible to realize the immensity of such an undertaking," the story concludes in undisguised admiration.

Of course, the accuracy of the account may be impossible to verify — in fact it seems far-fetched — but the sense of the indomitable spirit of those early settlers who helped form Tejon Ranch shines through and seems to be inseparable from the 175-year history of the ranch.

But changes, modern changes, are coming to the pristine landscape, and like it or not, a significant swath of Bakersfield's back country will be forever altered.

Zoeller answered a few questions related to these planned developments in the following exchange:

We've read that the proposed communities to Tejon Ranch (Centennial and Tejon Mountain) will be a chance to design from the ground up the communities of the future, different from the post-World War II suburban model we've followed for so long. How will these communities be different and new?

In addition to Centennial and Mountain Village, you need to add Grapevine into the mix. Between the three communities, there are any number of ways in which they will be new and different.

For example, technology will be part of the backbone of each community, almost like a fourth utility, giving each home and business the necessary bandwidth and high-speed connectivity to grow as technology grows. In both Grapevine and Centennial, every house will have solar.

Water conservation and reuse will be priorities as the communities will be able to capture and reuse, not only water used for landscaping, but storm water as well. All the communities will have a full and complete internal trail system that will also connect to the 240,000 acres of open space throughout the rest of Tejon Ranch.

In Centennial and Grapevine, every home will be within a quarter mile of a park and within a half mile of a school, to encourage walking and biking. Most streets will be intentionally narrower than normal, to slow traffic and give ample space to walking and biking trails.

Each community will feature a great diversity of product, so there is something for every size and taste. In Centennial and Grapevine, which are truly mixed-use communities, housing will be concentrated in village centers, providing access to shopping and other commercial activities. And the communities have a built-in flexibility so that they can adapt and incorporate new technology and techniques that may simply be just ideas or dreams today.

With wildfires raging in Northern and Southern California, how will Tejon take wildfire concerns into consideration during the planning and development phase? Has Tejon Ranch ever experienced a large wildfire?

In planning the communities, Tejon Ranch worked with the Kern County Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department and Cal Fire to develop a plan to deal with wildfire. Each community will have several fire stations. Multiple evacuations routes have been identified. Dip tanks and staging areas have been built into the plans. Homes will be sprinklered and defensible space requirements will be strictly enforced.

But perhaps our best defense against wildfire is an extremely low-tech approach: cattle grazing. The lands have been grazed for hundreds of years and the lands adjacent to the communities will continue to be grazed. By eating the grasses, the cattle cut down on the fuel load.

Over the years Tejon Ranch has not been immune to fire, but most fires are extinguished in short order, thanks to the great and quick response of our local fire agencies. I can’t think of a fire burning more than a couple of hundred acres (out of 270,000 acres) in the last two decades or so.

How can the public enjoy Tejon Ranch?

Tejon Ranch is still private property, but the public can gain access through a variety of programs. The Tejon Ranch Conservancy operates a public access program that offers hikes and other opportunities to see and experience the Ranch.

So far in 2018, more than 1,600 people have taken advantage of the program. We operate membership-based hunting and equestrian programs, offer an Explorer membership for non-hunters, and host a number of events throughout the year.

The last such event, the Spartan Race, which took place in October, attracted more than 10,000 participants and spectators. I would also be remiss in not reminding you that a great way for the public to enjoy Tejon Ranch is to take a trip down to the Outlets at Tejon or the Tejon Ranch Commerce Center. While that’s not necessarily enjoying the landscape of Tejon Ranch, it’s still Tejon Ranch, and both the Outlets and the Commerce Center are certainly a cut above the average and reflect Tejon Ranch’s commitment to quality development.

What water sources will Tejon use to sustain these residential communities?

Tejon Ranch has been required to demonstrate that it has sufficient water resources for the full build-out of each of the communities. And it does, and it has. Tejon Ranch is a member in several water agencies that provide it with an annual allocation. The Ranch has acquired additional water contracts over the years to supplement those allocations. The Ranch has also been an active participant in water banking, including building a water bank on its own property.

Tejon Ranch has such extensive water resources, that until they are needed for the various residential communities, the company can sell short-term contracts to other water users, helping to off-set the annual costs of the water it’s acquired and providing an additional source of revenue for the company.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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