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In Land They Trust : Environment: Instead of lobbying government officials in an effort to limit development, an Ojai Valley group is investing its energies in a conservancy.

November 29, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Phil Moncharsh pounds no spikes of protest into redwoods, convenes no street-corner demonstrations and holds no Earth First! membership.

But ask the 42-year-old attorney about land conservation and he takes on a certain revolutionary intensity. Sitting on a sun-dappled patio in his leafy Ojai back yard one recent day, he mapped out the plans of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.

"We've had numerous, numerous inquiries from landowners. Significant landowners," Moncharsh said. "And we have several discussions that we believe are in the final stages."

If those arrangements are consummated in coming days, as Moncharsh expects, his nonprofit group will have a hand in permanently blocking development on more than 200 acres of valuable Ojai Valley land, a key move for a fledgling, currently cash-poor land conservation group. In a larger sense, many authorities say, that move may represent the latest step forward by a national movement that is on the march into Southern California.

Instead of standing before their planning commissioners and City Council members to plead for government limits on development, hundreds of Southern Californians have begun to invest their energies in land trusts and conservancies.

The organizations are built as private nonprofit agencies that buy land, accept donations and persuade property owners to consider the tax advantages of forswearing development. Often they end up selling the properties as parkland to government agencies and reinvesting the revenues in new properties.

If the American environmental movement were a costume parade, the trusts and conservancies would be the ones in the wing tips and power ties.

"Having a part of the movement that can get into boardrooms and talk financial statements is of enormous strategic value to the movement as a whole," said Harvey Carlson, director of programs and operations for the Nature Conservancy in California.

"I have groomed this organization to present itself as a businesslike conservation service," said Linda Krieger, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. "It is not an environmental organization. We do not oppose developments. We do not support candidates. . . . We simply present ourselves to landowners as an entity that can help achieve their objectives."

The Nature Conservancy manages an estimated 400,000 acres of open space in California. Krieger's ostensibly non-environmental organization has in five years completed 12 transactions that served to preserve nearly 2,400 acres of open space. And new trusts are forming in other communities with increasing regularity.

Philosophically, they are kin to the Nature Conservancy, considered to be the nation's richest environmental group, which for almost 40 years has bought land and arranged conservation easements to protect thousands of acres nationwide that feature rare plants and animals.

But unlike the Nature Conservancy, which boasts about 1,000 paid staffers, a budget in the hundreds of millions and offices from coast to coast, many of the new conservancies are strictly local organizations, concentrating on a single county, a single geographical area, sometimes a single site.

"It's the NIMBYs," said Tom Martens, West Coast development and communications director for the Trust for Public Land, referring to the Not-In-My-Back-Yard sentiment ascribed to many affluent Californians.

"They hear about this, and they say, 'Hey, that's something I can actually do without being embarrassed,' " said Janet Diehl, project manager for the state Coastal Conservancy.

"We've hit a critical mass in a number of communities, and this is a citizen's way of reacting, of taking action," said Betty Wiechec, executive director of the Mountains Restoration Trust in Malibu. "What's interesting is that it happened spontaneously all over."

The Land Trust Alliance, an umbrella association in Washington, D.C., counts 850 non-public, local land trusts nationwide, with about half of them formed in the last 10 years and more than 100 of them formed since 1988. Together they protect an estimated 2 million acres from development.

In California, the alliance's figures show, the number of non-public trusts and conservancies has risen from 59 two years ago to at least 75 now. And in Southern California, the tally has risen from 21 to 28.

Many of them are upstart organizations in circumstances like the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy's--no property of their own, no staff and not much money. But many others, officials say, are on the brink of substantial progress.

On Oct. 6, those groups convened for the first time, under the title Southern California Land Trust Council, in Riverside. More than 50 people turned out, traded business cards and resolved to gather again in Rolling Hills Estates on Jan. 5.

"It was networking, sharing ideas, sharing techniques," Moncharsh reported. "People are realizing that you can't have unlimited perpetual growth."

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