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The Natural : Land use: Joe Edmiston is the consummate deal-maker, procuring thousands of acres for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. He's also developed many admirers and detractors.

January 13, 1994|RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First there were the sparse domestic budgets of the Reagan-Bush years. Then came the deficit-reduction fever of the Clinton Administration. It hasn't been a picnic for those who would acquire public parkland, not even for a wheeler-dealer such as Joseph T. Edmiston.

But as the only executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the state agency created in 1980 to acquire parkland in the mountains, Edmiston has thrived.

Indeed, he has gained a reputation as an aggressive and innovative parks advocate. Even his detractors acknowledge his remarkable success at expanding parklands during more than a decade of tightfisted government spending and spiraling land prices.

In his 14 years at the helm, the agency has managed--often in jigsaw-puzzle fashion--to buy, swap for or procure as donations 20,000 acres of private land in the spectacular mountain corridor that stretches from Griffith Park to Point Mugu in Ventura County. That's a land area more than half the size of San Francisco.

When the task has demanded it, he has enlisted the support of powerful political allies, outsmarted fellow bureaucrats, struck deals with movie stars and real estate developers and charmed community and environmental leaders.

"Joe's record of accomplishment speaks for itself," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a longtime ally who as a state legislator led the effort to establish the conservancy.

Others, however, hold a different view.

Edmiston is "more interested in personal power than in conservation," declared Mary Weisbrock, whose group, Save Open Space, finds him too quick to compromise with developers.

Still others say he can be ruthless and vindictive with those who dare cross him.

"Joe has a difficult time separating professional considerations from his own personal feelings," said Peter Ireland, who was forced out of his job at the agency last year after butting heads with Edmiston.

Bearded, baritone-voiced and armed with a lightning wit, Edmiston's powerful persona and zeal for deal-making has made him, to friend and foe alike, virtually indistinguishable from the agency he heads.

"Joe Edmiston is the conservancy," said Jerry Daniel, the agency's board chairman. "Without Joe I sincerely believe that the organization would crumble to pieces."

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Not surprisingly, Edmiston is the conservancy's key player as the agency prepares to take on two potential make-or-break challenges this year.

In June, voters will decide the fate of a $2-billion statewide bond initiative that would generate $132 million for the conservancy and its affiliates. It is no coincidence that the measure, sponsored by the California Planning and Conservation League, treats the conservancy generously. Edmiston helped draft it, as he did a similar measure sponsored by the same group and approved by voters in 1988.

This year's measure, known by the acronym CALPAW, would also make the agency permanently eligible to receive money from the state's General Fund and undertake land acquisition projects as far afield as the Whittier Hills and San Gabriel Mountains.

While the June vote represents a potential boon for the conservancy, a second test threatens to be the agency's bane: Opponents in the state Legislature are pushing proposals to rein in the agency.

Several lawmakers, led by state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), object to the agency's tactics, particularly its controversial attempt to use eminent domain to wrest 245 acres in the heart of the mountains from Soka University.

They are considering legislation to force the conservancy to reimburse state bond funds with the money it gets for transferring parkland to the federal government, no small change considering the agency has reaped $35 million from the transfer of about 5,000 acres to the National Park Service in little more than a decade.

Conservancy supporters were stunned last month when state Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-Modesto), long counted among the agency's friends, joined Wright in criticizing it.

"We are constantly looking at reinventing government, and at some point you may get reinvented," McCorquodale warned during a Senate oversight committee hearing.

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At the center of the storm is Edmiston, 44, who shrugs off such attacks by saying they come with the territory.

"I'm the Sgt. York in the Jeep," he said. "I provide a nice wide target to shoot at."

A self-proclaimed workaholic who wears a wrist calculator to figure per-acre land prices, Edmiston has literally wheeled and dealed all over the Santa Monica Mountains.

Beginning in 1989, he managed to torpedo an effort by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts to put a garbage dump in scenic Towsley Canyon near Santa Clarita, even though the landfill agency had already acquired an option on the property.

Edmiston bought two small parcels, including one near the mouth of the canyon that provided the only feasible truck route between the landfill site and the Golden State Freeway.

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