City officials are investigating how a 700-foot trail was cut, illegally, from coastal sage scrub in the Buck Gully Reserve, a 254-acre wilderness area that is home to federally and state-protected animals and plants, it was reported Tuesday

The trail, which runs from the bottom of the Bridge Trail to the top of the south canyon and ends near homes on Isabella Terrace, was discovered by park patrol March 31, just two days after the last patrol had come through, the Orange County Register reported. Patrol units routinely go through the reserve to enforce laws such as making sure dogs are being kept on leash.

Buck Gully Reserve is part of the Natural Community Conservation Plan, which provides for the protection of plants, animals and their habitats. The reserve is managed by Newport Beach for the county of Orange. About 37,000 acres are under NCCP designation in the county.

In 2009, the city cut two legal trail loops into the reserve to be used by nature enthusiasts. The illegal trail branches off one of the loops and ascends to the canyon through steep natural coastal vegetation.

“We’ve never had this happen before,” said Sean Levin, recreation superintendent and senior deputy director. “It happened very quickly. It’s heartbreaking to see the destruction of the habitat that’s been there for 50 years.”

A landscape contractor hired by the city started removing the dead coastal scrub on Wednesday, April 17. Next steps include drawing up a restoration plan, which will be reviewed by the California Coastal Commission. Levin said it could be years before the area in Corona del Mar is restored.

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