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After years of negotiations, group acquires land for wildlife corridor

Activists are cheering the acquisition of a strategically located 71-acre swath of land between the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Valley that they hope will be home to the area's first overpass for wildlife. 

The project has long been the dream of activists hoping to create safe passageway for animals — including the area's fenced-in cougars — to cross into and out of the mountain range.

On Friday, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority purchased the Chesebro Meadow property for $7 million from a private seller — doubling the size of protected wildlife habitat along the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills. 

The move came four years after conservationists began negotiations to buy the land, and brings the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Corridor project one step closer to construction. 

At a press conference, employees of the organization and public officials toasted the deal with Martinelli's apple juice. It was, public relations director Dash Stolarz  said, an unbelievable moment. 

"The land won't stay there for us unless we protect it," she said. "Believe me, everybody's back at work already and we'll keep working until we get this bridge built and every single mountain lion has a better chance than he had the day before." 

The effort is seen as among the best chances for resident wildlife populations' long-term survival. Many have become increasingly genetically isolated — cut off from access to other wild lands by highways and housing. Inbreeding is widespread within the population of Santa Monica Mountain cougars, which now among the most genetically isolated in the country.

At Friday's ceremony, the land was named after state senator Fran Pavley, a longtime supporter of the land's purchase. During the past few years, she helped the group secure public funding from the California Wildlife Conservation Board ($3.35 million in Proposition 50 funds), Los Angeles County supervisor Sheila Kuehl ($1.1 million) and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Proposition 1 appropriation ($2.55 million).

The process of purchasing the land was complicated, Dash said. It involved years of competition with developers who wanted the land to build hotels, neighborhoods and a jail.

"Now all of the pieces are in place," Stolarz said. "It's this momentum that's going to push the whole thing forward."

A team of developers from CalTrans is working on creating an environmental document outlining the local impact of constructing the bridge. Once that's completed, the group can begin fundraising to begin construction.

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority still needs a real time design and $25 million more to finance the bridge's construction.

The newly acquired 71 acres is home to chaparral, coastal sage scrub, grassland, oak woodland-savannah vegetation. Once constructed, Stolarz said, the corridor will make it easier for humans and animals alike to travel and live together in the densely populated region.

This story has been updated.