Nature Conservancy Establishes 24,000-Acre California Coastal Preserve

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The Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve is a diverse tract of land that will protect flora and fauna biodiversity. The Nature Conservancy

A swath of California coastal land that the LA Times once called "the last perfect place" is going to remain perfect thanks to the Nature Conservancy.

Using a $165 million donation from Jack and Laura Dangermond, co-founders of the geographic information systems and mapping company Esri, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased and is now permanently protecting the over 24,000-acre Cojo/Jalama Ranch — also known as Bixby Ranch — at Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.

"This is an incredibly rare, ecologically important place with eight miles of coast and centuries-old coastal oak woodlands," Jack Dangermond said in a TNC statement announcing the creation of the preserve. "This deserves to be preserved and managed by an organization like the Nature Conservancy."

The preserve will be named after the Dangermonds.

A meeting of north and south

Rolling hills and trees in the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve
The untouched land of the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve is more than scenic. The Nature Conservancy

The preserve, according to the Atlantic, includes hills, canyons, grasslands, creeks, part of the Santa Ynez mountain range, possibly 1 million live oaks and the coastline around Point Conception.

There land here is shockingly pristine. While cattle have grazed on the land since the late 1800s, the area has never been developed much beyond that. So there aren't malls of any kind and there aren't any ostentatious homes of the wealthy centered around a stunning view. There's just wilderness, a unique thing in this day and age of rapid commercial development.

And with that wilderness comes the other unique thing about The Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve: its wildlife.

Wild deer run through the lands of The Jack and Laura Dangermond Conservancy
The preserve is an important wildlife corridor for the animals of California. The Nature Conservancy

The preserve marks the place where northern and southern California ecosystems transition. For California's wildlife, it marks either the southernmost or northernmost parts of their respective ranges. And this makes it one of the most biodiverse parts of California, Mark Reynolds, the Nature Conservancy scientist overseeing the acquisition, told National Geographic.

The property is also adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest and other protected areas. The result is an important wildlife corridor for bears, mountain lions and bobcats. Fourteen threatened and endangered species, like the snowy plover, red-legged frog and monarch butterfly, call the preserve home.

A crab in the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve
The marine life around the preserve, like its landed counterparts, is similarly untouched. The Nature Conservancy

The blended environments aren't just on the land, though. The ocean is also a biodiversity hot spot.

Cold northern waters of the Pacific mix with the warmer waters of the coast, and the result in a diverse marine environment where sea mammals can swim without concern of human interference.

"With this huge mixing, you have a rookery of seals, big whales, all the elements of a hugely diverse marine reserve," Jack Dangermond told the Atlantic.

Brush at sunrise in the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve
Only in an untouched area can you get a sunrise like this. The Nature Conservancy

Basically, if you're looking for the wildlife that California has to offer, it's here in the preserve.

"There's no place like it. It's where northern California and southern California meet. Standing there in the oaks, looking west across the ocean, you understand why this has been a spiritual place for millennia," Mike Sweeney, executive director of the California Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said in the TNC statement.

The spiritual element Sweeney mentions is another reason the preserve is also important to note. Before the Spanish and Americans arrived, the area was home to the Chumash tribe, and it was, according to the Atlantic, the point at which spirits enter the next world. The preserve protects not only animal and plant life, but the cultural lands of a Native American tribe.

Saved from development

The map of the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve
An enlarged view of the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve. Esri and The Nature Conservancy

The land's fate wasn't always a sure thing, however.

In 2007, the land was purchased for $136 million by the Boston-based investment firm Baupost Group. The hedge fund hedged on its plans for the land, refusing to comment to locals, government officials and conservationists about their plans, with one of the firm's lawyer's saying that they "absolutely do not have any specific plans yet for the land."

Concerns were naturally varied given the secrecy of Baupost Group, and the fact the land could be divided into 109 developable lots.

Nothing ever came of the sale, however. Still, fear that another sale to a more aggressive owner motivated the Dangermonds and TNC for two years to figure out how to acquire the land, according to National Geographic. In addition to its cultural and natural importance, the area also mattered personally: the Dangermonds spent some of their honeymoon at the former Bixby Ranch.

Cattle graze on ranching land in the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve
Cattle have another 18 months to enjoy the view. The Nature Conservancy

Now that the land is protected in perpetuity, the work on preserving the land begins. An 18-month review process will launch soon on how best to keep the land intact while also serving a number of interests, from protecting the land to offering public access to navigating the Air Force's presence and its use of a debris easement across some of the property.

Cattle ranching will likely discontinue following the review process.

Deer scamper by a California live oak
The preserve is a 'conservation puzzle' for the humans, but a boon to the plants and wildlife. The Nature Conservancy

"It’s a conservation puzzle," Michael Bell, TNC's Oceans Program Director in California told the Santa Barbara Independent.

Less of a puzzle is the partnership between the Dangermonds, TNC and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Within a year, students and other researchers will access to the preserve for research and field study purposes. In addition to funding a $1 million-endowed chair in Conservation Studies at UCSB, the Dangermonds hope that UCSB and TNC will work together to create a digital lab at Point Conception, one dedicated to identifying and protecting other pristine areas, like the preserve.

A conservation call to arms

A lighthouse at Point Conception
The Dangermonds hope that the preserve will motivate other wealthy donors to contribute to conservation efforts. The Nature Conservancy

The Dangermonds normally remain anonymous with their donations, let alone when donating the largest amount of money TNC has ever received. The decision to announce themselves in regards to the establishment of the preserve, they hope, will be a rallying cry for other rich people to step up and help out in the conservation movement.

"We want to inspire more people to give major contributions toward conservation, that's the only reason we've chosen to share our involvement. We want to set an example. Conservation isn't just being nice to animals or plants, it's investing in the continued life support systems of humans and all other species on the planet. We need more people to step up to protect our last great places," Jack Dangermond said in the statement from TNC.

In his interview with the Atlantic, Dangermond recalls the tycoons in the past, like the Rockefellers, who purchased various tracts of land across the country for the sake of preservation. Much of that land would go on to become parts of national parks.

"We would love to have 100 Dangermond Reserves," he said. "But I'm not Carnegie. We're not in the oil business. We can't do this by ourselves. We're telling the story to set an example of what others could do."