PLOT OF LAND
The Big Sur Land Trust revisits its mission.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
All one can recall are the delicious wheat biscuits. Another remembers “some good salads and a lot of roasted vegetables.” A third surviving founder of the Big Sur Land Trust says the only thing that comes to mind with any certainty is the cheese casserole.
But while the five founders still alive today don’t so much recollect what they ate at the potlucks that served as their seminal gatherings three decades ago, they haven’t forgotten why they were there.
“If we thought we could do anything, we felt we could help local people preserve their own properties,” says founding member Beverly Newell. (The mission statement minted soon thereafter carried a more official ring: “To conserve our precious lands and waters for all generations.”)
Last month, as the pioneers gathered to celebrate the anniversary of BSLT’s incoporation, the affair demonstrated how much has changed.
The most dramatic difference was not the fastidiously arranged food furnished by celeb-chef Wendy Brodie – even though her desserts, fire truck-red strawberries the size of small fists, and award-winning wines from Chalone poured by well-groomed staffers bore little resemblance to the biscuits and BYO beverages of old.
It wasn’t the setting, though the velvety, polished confines of the Sunset Center offered a marked contrast to late founder Nancy Hopkins’ lawn atop Partington Ridge that most frequently served as their meeting place in 1978.
And it wasn’t the number of people present, despite the fact that hundreds of members, donors and citizens taking their seats for a new BLST video and a concert from eco-acoustic guitarist Erica Wheeler (and the millions of dollars in funding and assets they represented) gave each of the founders pause. (“At the time we were starting, we couldn’t have envisioned such a large organization,” Newell says.)
BSLT built their new vision around five pillars: HEALTHY COMMUNITIES | ecological health | land stewardship | youth and education | durable local economy
For more on the land trust’s enhanced mission (and to view their new video), or for information on conserving your land and the accompanying tax benefits, visit www.bigsurlandtrust.org.
The bigger change was more abstract and ambitious, befitting a broader national conversation centered on community, connection and change: a revisited mission that redefines real estate not as an end, but as a means to take on some of the biggest problems facing Monterey County today.
So as he stood at the podium beneath the Sunset Center’s soaring rafters, Executive Director Bill Leahy did not seem terribly interested in toasting the work that has made BSLT one of the most accomplished organizations of its kind in the United States. He spoke of a challenge that, if left unmet, could “unwind decades of important successful work to save land.”
From here, the modest little potlucks on the lawn seemed a distant memory.
The breath-stealing sweep of Big Sur’s marine terraces, coastal groves and juxtaposed Pacific made the founders’ heart ribbit like a California red-legged frog. But it also triggered something less visceral and more practical in their minds.
Many had seen some of the most stirring stretches of California coast – Malibu and Manhattan Beach, Newport and other chunks of the O.C. – shut off by the shoulders of luxury homes and hotels squeezed tightly together.
“The thought of that in Big Sur was anathema,” Newell says.
Most of the original collaborators were transplants – including a lawyer from Los Angeles, a Quaker from Chicago and a Silicon Valley executive. To co-founder Roger Newell, Beverly’s husband, himself a native who’d recently returned to raise a family along the shores where his family ran a ranch – that made sense.
“They appreciated it,” he recalls. “They understood what it was like where there isn’t clean air, vast horizons, stars at night and all that Big Sur living offers.’’
They were also linked by their involvement in community groups and – more importantly – a recent appointment by Monterey County Supervisors to contribute ideas to a Local Coastal Plan. Precipitated by the California Coastal Act of 1976, it would balance the important but often competing interests of access and protection.
As they delved into the issues surrounding the stewardship of the South Coast, they recognized a pressing need: To protect land from piecemeal development. The disparate group shared the endemic Big Sur instinct that more government is about as amenable as a good mudslide – and knew local groups were already displeased with what they saw as state parks’ lack of accountability.
Things unfolded organically from there. A sympathetic LCP planner mentioned the possibility of establishing a public trust. Soon, they were trading visits with the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy, two national groups expert in conserving land.
“We were very interested – and excited – to know there was a general structure out there that existed and that these organizations were willing to send representatives,’’ Beverly Newell remembers.
On came the potlucks, says co-founder Zad Leavy, the lawyer from L.A. who would play a key role in negotiating the real estate transactions central to BSLT’s success, and “a lot of research, a lot of fundraising, a lot of talking, connecting with other trusts, other agencies.”
“Land trusts were kind of a new concept,” Roger Newell says. “A tax code recognized land could be of scenic value and public value. That allowed landowners to take buildable land off the market and get a tax credit. That idea needed an entity in Big Sur.”
That need would quickly grow more urgent. The founders learned an ecologically critical property had a less-than-savory sale pending. Gamboa Ranch held a key position next to UC Santa Cruz’s Big Creek Reserve, a wedge of wilderness kept pristine for research purposes. A development group from Oklahoma was poised to purchase the property right when Leavy reached the sellers by phone and made his pitch.
The deal would make national headlines. The size of the acquisition – 3,000 acres – was one reason, but the buzz orbited around the technique: Nobody had previously executed a transaction between private parties for federal tax benefits. Leavy’s studies revealed the legal machinery was sound. Late co-founder Lloyd Addleman convinced Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard, a powerful conservationist, to swing his funds into the purchase. A deal was struck.
“The way we did it became a formula for how to do it,” Leavy says.
Suddenly, BSLT became “a real, functioning nonprofit,’’ the trust’s first executive director, Brian Steen, recalls.
The deal immediately drew more interest from local parties looking to conserve their own plots. While voices of protest echoed around the valley – in Big Sur they fall as reliably as the rain – most of the critiques drained away as locals fearful of government and landgrabbers realized BSLT worked only with willing sellers and stood to make no money from their transactions. Soon, the work of customizing each deal to the specs of the seller, considering legacy desires and specific tax and ongoing housing needs – Leavy crafted what he described as “100 different deals for 100 different properties” – and monitoring those lands in accordance with their legal requirements grew more and more complicated.
But Steen helped steer a nimble organization from one transaction to another, leveraging its growing community connections to find money to buy land worth saving. Donations were deployed to buy out logging companies; grants and partnerships with The Nature Conservancy provided the means to acquire properties to turn into state and regional parks.
“One way or another, we’d find the money,” Steen says, citing examples in which BSLT entered into escrow without the pledged funds in place, only to win a grant or contribution just in time to lock down the deal.
In 1988 Prop. 70 freed $25 million in funds for Monterey County to preserve critical viewshed, and the Big Sur Land Trust “graduated from being an assertive nonprofit to more of an institution,” according to Steen.
Today their cumulative accomplishments are impressive.
Trust members – who as part of their $50-a-year enrollment enjoy access to BSLT’s fee lands – number more than 1,200. A deep and decorated donor list doubles as a Who’s Who of local philanthropists. The board is stocked with big-picture powerbrokers.
But BSLT’s three types of land acquisitions – easements, fee lands and transitioned properties – reflect accomplishment in more charismatic mediums: trunks, rivers and terrain.
Easements have sealed 8,000 acres in places like the hills above Odello Farms opposite Monastery Beach – which BSLT is working to restore to its original floodplain (see sidebar, this page) – and along Highway 101 in Gonzales, where drivers are greeted not by tract homes but by 3,200 acres of narrow canyons and rolling hills dotted by blue and valley oaks.
Fee lands (properties owned by BSLT by way of gifts, grants and donor-empowered purchases) encompass close to 5,000 acres of streams, valleys and forests, allowing room for everything from youth-outreach programs to organic farming and artist-in-residence programs (see sidebar, pg. 29).
A full 15,000 acres have been transferred to partner agencies for greater public access. Recent transfers include 480 acres just north of UC-Santa Cruz’s Big Creek Reserve to expand scientific research, and the nearly 10,000-acre Palo Corona Ranch (across 1 from Point Lobos), which provides permit hiking through the regional parks distict.
All told, BSLT has conserved roughly 30,000 acres in perpetuity – more than 45 times the area of Carmel-by-the Sea.
But as Leahy sits in a conference room of BLST’s Carmel offices, concern creases his brow.
“Our long-term mission is in jeopardy,” he says, “if others aren’t invested.”
A night earlier, he’d stood before the main floor at the Sunset Center, thanking the founders who had lived to see their original mission succeed. He paused to let the applause filter throughout the concert hall, then promptly pivoted towards the future. What he said next represented a coming-out of sorts, the first time the BSLT publicly announced plans it had been sharing piecemeal with its members since starting a visioning process several years ago to identify the aforementioned “emerging challenge.”
“Measuring success acre by acre is a hopeful measure of our progress, yet limiting and insufficient,” Leahy continued. “For a large proportion of our community, our work is perceived to be unconnected to the issues that concern them.”
This means BSLT has and will continue to shift some of its resources to integrating people’s needs with the land’s.
Leahy admits that not everybody is in synch with the scale of the new approach: “I have some close friends who think it’s a distraction from our core mission.”
Past staff members, meanwhile, express frustration over how BSLT is chosing to spend funds, saying a number of land management needs have been consciously overlooked.
The founders in the audience are not among the critics – they don’t see this as a shift so much as an evolution.
“You run out of key vulnerable pieces with a particularly attractive biosphere, so it’s a natural extension to share what these lands have to offer,” Roger Newell says. “I see it as a natural extension of being good stewards of land.”
“If we don’t have someone connected to land to continue using it,” asks longtime BSLT supporter Marsha McMahan Zelus, “why save it?”
Fairly or unfairly, Big Sur Land Trust has long been called elitist. By throwing open the doors to actors from all corners of the shareholding theater to discuss what will happen with their lands, BSLT is confronting that perception head on.
That means that at recently acquired Marks Ranch, while it’s tricky for scientists to track the elusive badgers who call it home, it’s harder to find a population that hasn’t been connected to calculating the best uses for the ranch’s 816 Toro Park-adjacent acres. The Marks Ranch Advisory Committee included a far-reaching range of players, everyone from to St. John’s Chapel Rev. Jerome F. Politzer to Leon Panetta to CSU Monterey Bay’s Dr. Diane Cordero de Noriega. Same goes for the visioning exercises that precipitated BSLT’s new charge: Key players from affordable housing (Alfred Diaz-Infante), the legal and Latino communities (local attorney and county Hispanic chamber chair Blanca Zarazúa), ranching (Steve Dorrance among several), public safety (Big Sur Fire Brigade’s Frank Pinney), business and marketing (David Armanasco), and farming (Ag Conservancy’s Brian Rianda) all participated.
But while the Marks advisory board was as diverse as it was decorated, the answers that emerged were anything but. A single theme dominated: Finding a way to get disadvantaged Salinas kids into nature.
“In engaging the wider community, we have clarified common goals,” says and trust spokeswoman Rachel Saunders. “Everybody trying to solve problems at 35,000 feet struggles to do that. On the ground, at the grassroots level, there’s a lot of agreement.”
It began working immediately at Marks, where BSLT ultimately envisions “a dynamic living classroom that will offer recreation and education programs to thousands of children.”
“We took a busload of children out there originally just to see,” says Donna Ferraro, CEO-president of Boys and Girls Club for Monterey County. “The first thing they did was run out of bus and climb a big oak tree. They were hiking, picking up lizards, running around and playing tag.”
Providing hundreds of kids sequestered by concrete and overcrowding a chance to pursue a freer sense of self and general wonder about the natural world could seem worth the $5.4 million price of acquisition. In keeping with a commitment to squeeze every square foot of community value out of its properties, BSLT also wants to actively maintain and study wildlife corridors with help from De Anza College, and experiment with grazing as a way of managing the land. They are just getting started.
“We’re much more strategic and thoughtful with each project,” Saunders says. “The first step is the property itself, then building a vision for each.”
As with their intensified place-based push, BLST is leveraging partnerships to pursue key initiatives. Aware that 43 percent of Monterey county is private ranchland – and that 21 of the county’s 25 types of habitat exist in ranchlands – BSLT is eager to permanently preserve the ecologically critical habitats. Ranchers, meanwhile, make for a willing audience: sacrificing development rights in exchange for income and tax incentives is a great option for land-rich, cash-poor ranchers facing difficult times. Sharing data on which practices best reduce fire danger and support healthy ecosystems also helps both parties.
As part of the effort, BLST deputized UC Santa Barbara School of Environmental Science and Management students to conduct an extended study of the county’s ranchland conversion and the socioeconomic factors at work. BSLT has also partnered with the Central Coast Rangelands Coalition, which hopes to preserve and monitor 1 million acres of local lands within the next decade.
Elsewhere, initiatives include work with longtime partners like Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District to design restoration projects that provide ecologically sound habitat while maximizing outdoor recreation and flood control, as they have with the Carmel River Parkway and could potentially with Carr Lake in Salinas (see sidebar, pg. 24).
For those who frame these activities as further distractions that demand BSLT enter areas incongruent with their expertise and undermine their ability to conserve more land – Leahy has a two-fold response ready.
“We know we’re not in business of public health or educating kids,” he says, “so we look who has competencies in core concepts – Rancho Cielo, Ventana Wilderness Society – and embed them.”
“For those concerned that we are moving beyond our core mission,” he told BLST supporters at Sunset, “I assure you we are only becoming more successful at achieving it… Over the past five years, the Land Trust, working with partners, has helped protect almost 10,000 acres at the heart of our most important landscapes. That represents a pace of conservation more than triple that of our 25 years.”
If John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is “a poem, a stink, a grating noise,” then Big Sur Land Trust’s 1,057 acre Mitteldorf Preserve is a hope, a perspective, a sparrow’s song.
Here, disadvantaged youths build debris shelters next the county’s biggest redwood, BSLT members hike out through fern-covered canyons to oak and savannah highlands, and bandtail pigeons burst from the redberry-bearing madrones with a quiet percussion of wings against the afternoon.
It’s also here, on an idyllic December day, that Leahy and Saunders stand next to a rhinoceros-skinned oak and talk about connectivity – watersheds to rivers, people to public lands, community to community.
From the preserve’s highest point, Cannery Row isn’t visible, but much of Monterey County, including the big golden contours of Steinbeck Country, is, buttressed by various BSLT projects and partnerships. But Big Sur is blocked out by the Santa Lucia Mountains, and Salinas can look a long way away. It did for the previous Big Sur Land Trust, before it decided to focus less on Big Sur and more on trust.
“Historically, we’ve existed in silos, our own little boundaries,’’ Leahy says. “We want to make the boundaries disappear by thinking holistically, broadly.”
The connections that cross those boundaries are human: “We’ve moved from real estate-based to relationship-based,” he adds.
In other words, more people are invited to the potluck.