Michael O’Connell oversees all aspects of stewardship, public programs and business operations for the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. The Yale-educated CEO brings decades of experience to ensuring Irvine’s open spaces are well-maintained and available for public use.
1. You’ve said “wildlife selfies are a thing.” How can that be?
IRC has a network of motion and heat-triggered remote wildlife cameras to help us monitor the health of wildlife populations and the land. Occasionally, we get a picture of a curious animal that walked right up to the camera to get a good look or sniff of the equipment. We call those pictures wildlife selfies because that is exactly what they look like!
2. If a family member was visiting from out of town, which hike would you take them on?
That’s a tough question, because there are so many amazing places to visit. If we could only visit one, I would suggest Bommer Canyon in the city of Irvine’s Open Space Preserve. This area has healthy and globally endangered coastal sage scrub habitat and wildlife, and the trails are in excellent condition. More than 15 miles of trails in that area are open for daily self-guided access. On the trail in Bommer, it’s easy to forget that the city is only minutes away.
3. How great has it been to reopen IRC’s Wilderness Access Days and see people out enjoying the land again?
Both the pandemic and the 2020 wildfires severely impacted many of our public activities, including Wilderness Access Days. It took a lot of work to get the trails and facilities rebuilt after the fires and give the land time to recover to once again host activities. Resuming them has been tremendous, and they have been filled with people excited to immerse themselves in nature.
4. How do volunteers make an impact with IRC, and how can residents get involved?
I like to say that IRC is volunteer-powered. We have more than 500 regular volunteers who annually give more than 45,000 hours of service. Without them, we could only host a fraction of the free public activities found on letsgooutside.org. But they do far more than lead activities. Volunteers are involved in everything we do, from removing invasive weeds to restoring native habitats, helping prevent wildfires through OC Fire Watch, and sharing their knowledge and love for the land with the community. Anyone interested in becoming part of this incredible group can learn more at letsgooutside.org/volunteer and sign up for an orientation.
“On the trail in Bommer, it’s easy to forget that the city is only minutes away.”
5. IRC was established 17 years ago, and you have been the founding president and CEO since the beginning. What are you most proud of?
The three things I’m most proud of are, first, the land management partnerships we’ve developed with OC Parks, the city of Irvine and the city of Newport Beach, as well as our habitat restoration partnerships with OC Transportation Authority, OC Waste & Recycling, California State Parks and other agencies. Second has to be the huge community of people we have catalyzed who enjoy, participate in and help care for the land. And last, but not least, is the amazing team of people we have assembled at IRC who dedicate themselves every day to make sure these spectacular lands are cared for and enjoyed to the highest possible standards for generations to come.