Trailblazer makes his mark in Calabasas

March 31, 2011 

March was a banner month for Don Wallace. And not just because he and his wife, Jeanne, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

“We finished the party,” Wallace remembers, “and the very next afternoon, the phone rang.” With friends and family still filtering in and out of the Wallaces’ 4.5-acre ranchette in the Santa Monica Mountains, the longtime trail advocate let out a whoop as he received news for which he had waited most of his 70-year lifetime:

His beloved Las Virgenes Creek Trail had finally found its way under the Ventura Freeway.

“I was ecstatic,” Wallace says, still thrilled at the approval earlier this month of $300,000 in excess county bond funds that will allow the trail to run uninterrupted from the Santa Monica Mountains down through underpasses at the 101 and Agoura Road in Calabasas and on into Malibu Creek State Park.

The trail easement and improvements—officially dubbed “The Don Wallace Trail Project”—will not only connect the Santa Monica Mountains to the beach for people, horses and wildlife, but also honor one of the most zealous and hardworking trail advocates in Southern California.

For decades, Wallace and other activists have sought to create a path that would allow people and animals to follow Las Virgenes Creek from the pristine mountains down to the ocean, but their dream was stymied by development and traffic. Even as crucial tracts were acquired for the public, the 101 Freeway remained a dangerous concrete barrier between the mountain part of the trail and the beach part.

Then, last year, with funding allocated by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority bought a key swath of wilderness known as Firehouse Hill from the developer Fred Sands. The nearly 200-acre Calabasas property is a gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area—and sits right next to the freeway.

Though environmentalists, activists and government officials cheered the acquisition for many reasons, trail advocates immediately saw its potential as an avenue through which they could bring the Las Virgenes Creek Trail—which is part of a larger loop called the Calabasas Cold Creek Trail—down to and under the 101 along a flood control easement, where it could then connect to the Malibu Creek State Park trail system. They’d just need to make the underpass safe and accessible.

The March vote provided that crucial support, opening the way for a 2,500-foot link that is expected to break ground next year.

“This is a wonderful victory,” said Wallace, crediting the many public agencies that pushed for the project. But Wallace’s friends and fellow advocates say there’s a reason the key link is being named after him.

“He’s one of the hardest working gentlemen I know,” says Stephanie Abronson, who edits the newsletter for Equestrian Trails Inc., Corral 36, a mountain equestrian group.

Born in Tennessee , Wallace moved to Van Nuys as a teenager after his father, a restaurant owner, visited relatives here and made it a goal to move to California . At 20, he married Jeanne, whom he’d met in a chemistry lab at Pierce College .

The couple settled in Canoga Park , had two sons and got into horseback riding, eventually deciding that they wanted enough land to have their own corral. Wallace, by now a Los Angeles city firefighter, found a spread near the unincorporated community of Monte Nido, and the couple built a house on it. They still live there with assorted horses, cats and dogs and a potbellied pig.

A trail ran near the Wallace’s acreage, and one day in the early 1970s, he says, a neighbor who wanted to build a winery came out with a bulldozer and blocked it in an attempt to keep passersby away.

“That trail had been put in in 1935 by the Boy Scouts,” says Wallace, who eventually forced the neighbor to open an alternative easement.

“It took three years of work and masses of paper, but I learned never to give up and never to say that it can’t be done.”

Since then, Wallace has served on the Santa Monica National Recreation Area Advisory Commission, the Resources Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Malibu Creek Watershed Council and many other groups seeking to improve the mountains community.

He also served as a deputy for then-Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman in the early 1990s, and ran for supervisor himself in 1988 and 1994.

Throughout, when he wasn’t lobbying for trails or riding his horses on them, he was out clearing them with his bare hands, says Ruth Gerson, president of the Santa Monica Mountains Trail Council—“repairing tread, cutting back brush, reducing erosion, and encouraging others to work with him.”

That commitment has been challenged in recent years by health problems. Wallace says he has faced a stroke, vascular surgery and two bouts of prostate cancer since the 1990s; last year he underwent a triple bypass.

But his projects are far from finished—he’s already wondering how to restore the old Boy Scout trail behind his house.

“I walk every day,” says the trail blazer. “And I’m a very strong guy for 70.”

Posted 3/31/11

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