Long before Joseph T. Edmiston became the point man for expanding public parklands in the Santa Monica Mountains, he was a young law student with a part-time job as a process server.
His targets often were men refusing to pay their bills, and Edmiston developed a sly tactic for flushing them out. He would ring the doorbell and announce that he was having an affair with the deadbeat's wife.
"They knew, these guys. I had people behind the door saying: 'Ah, you're just a process server,' " he said. But none could resist opening up for a closer look at the self-professed home-wrecker--giving Edmiston just enough room to serve a summons.
Now 42, Edmiston insists he abandoned such underhanded methods years ago. But he has lost none of his boldness as head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the state agency that acquires land for parks in the spectacular range in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
In 11 years as the conservancy's executive director, he has struck deals with developers and Hollywood stars, outmaneuvered fellow bureaucrats and enlisted powerful political allies to preserve thousands of mountain acres. In the process, he has won a reputation as Southern California's most innovative parks official, and the most aggressive.
Even detractors acknowledge Edmiston's remarkable success at enlarging parklands in the Santa Monicas and nearby foothills. Since its inception in 1980, the conservancy has acquired more than 17,000 acres, an area about half the size of San Francisco.
But the quick victories of the 1980s have given way to protracted battles in the 1990s. Escalating land prices, competition from other buyers and a chronic cash shortage have made Edmiston's job increasingly difficult.
Now he is struggling to hold together his biggest deal ever: a complex exchange involving entertainer Bob Hope that would produce the largest single addition to California's park system in 30 years, more than 10,000 acres.
Under the current version of the plan, Hope would sell and donate thousands of acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties for public open space. In return, the federal government would give national parkland to a developer for a road to Hope's secluded Jordan Ranch in Ventura County. That access would allow luxury homes to be built on the land, which government park authorities have sought to acquire for years.
The plan has met furious opposition from Ventura County officials and some environmentalists. In recent secret negotiations, Edmiston and others have sought to achieve the same ends without any surrender of national park land.
Edmiston personally has come under fire for his role in promoting the Hope land swap and another luxury-home development in Calabasas. In both cases, he switched hats and acted as a lobbyist for the builders before regulatory bodies.
Edmiston argues that he was guaranteeing parks for areas where development is inevitable. His critics say such deals are Faustian bargains that compromise the conservancy and promote growth far in excess of zoning limits.
"He's singing the developers' song," said Mary Wiesbrock, leader of Save Open Space, a group of environmentalists and homeowners opposed to the Hope swap.
In dealing with developers, Edmiston brings considerable power to the table. If the conservancy chooses to fight a project, it can sue on environmental grounds. It can also bid against builders for choice land or seize it through governmental condemnation.
But Edmiston can be an influential ally to the same developers, stamping a project as environmentally acceptable.
Bearded, bass-voiced and built like a beer barrel, Edmiston is a shrewd, cerebral man who attended USC on a debate scholarship and learned his political skills as a young Sierra Club organizer.
Appointed to head the conservancy by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Edmiston has close connections to the Los Angeles political organization headed by U.S. Reps. Howard L. Berman and Henry A. Waxman, both liberal Democrats. Berman's district includes part of the mountains. As a state assemblyman he sponsored legislation creating the conservancy.
Edmiston "has literally wheeled and dealed to save critical parcels over and over again," Berman said. "He has the talents of a very good real estate developer, but on behalf of conservation."
Edmiston is sometimes compared to Robert Moses, the powerful New York parks and public works commissioner whose political career began during World War I and spanned six decades. A master of bureaucratic gamesmanship, Moses built hundreds of parks, playgrounds and highways throughout New York State before being stripped of power by then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.
Like Moses, Edmiston is a gifted bureaucratic chess player.