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COLUMN ONE

A Quiet Broker of the Wild

The low-profile Wildlands Conservancy lures wealthy donors to preserve open space. It helped the U.S. buy a vast expanse of desert.

April 24, 2002|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN EMIGDIO RANCH, Calif. — The canyons, oaks and grasslands here sent Dave Myers back to his 1950s childhood.

"This reminds me so much of Orange County when I was young and the hills went on forever," he said as his eyes roamed the landscape for deer and eagles.

The Orange County of Myers' youth was long ago displaced by red-tile roofs. But his allegiance to the wild made him an ardent conservationist, head of a little-known nonprofit that has helped save expansive chunks of Southern California.

Operating out of a renovated bunkhouse in an old apple orchard in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, his Wildlands Conservancy outmaneuvered the Mormon Church to buy San Emigdio Ranch, an untamed 97,000-acre intersection of ecosystems in southern Kern County, just over the mountains from the seeping sprawl of Los Angeles.

Then, in a series of transactions beginning in 1998, the organization came up with $35 million in private donations to help the U.S. Department of the Interior acquire a vast checkerboard of desert lands that together are bigger than Orange County. The Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C., says it is probably the biggest sale, in terms of acreage, of private land for public conservation in the U.S. The parcels stretch from Barstow to the Arizona border, a raw, khaki landscape of mountains, valleys and washes.

In its brief history, Wildlands Conservancy has demonstrated a talent for coaxing big private donations from a few wealthy benefactors and then using the money to attract public funds for major conservation purchases.

"It's like something out of 'The Godfather'--a deal you can't resist," quipped a congressional staffer familiar with the organization's work.

Scott Eubanks, a realty specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, remains incredulous at Wildlands Conservancy's fund-raising muscle.

"It's just phenomenal the ability they have to raise cash," he said. "What they have done--I'm just amazed."

The scale of their projects reflects a growing consensus in the conservation community that big is biologically better, that ecosystems need room to thrive.

Myers still has, at 50, the lope of a teenage boy. He recites Emerson and Wordsworth, never wears a watch and stopped eating meat and hunting years ago because, he said, "It no longer pleased my imagination to kill things."

He and his small group--the administrative staff can be counted on one hand--don't always succeed. Last year, they withdrew from attempts to protect the Owens Valley by buying development rights from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power after Inyo County ranchers and supervisors balked. Locals were suspicious of an outside environmental group as well as the concept of a conservation easement.

But Wildlands Conservancy very much got what it wanted in the Mojave Desert--in good part because the organization provided much of the funding, no strings attached.

While conservancy groups commonly negotiate land deals and provide money up front, they often are largely reimbursed by the government or another entity taking over the property.

Wildlands Conservancy poured a fortune into the Mojave purchase with no expectations of a payback. It could do so because its donors valued the boundless, unadorned essence of one of the most American of landscapes--the Southern California desert.

Though the group gets some foundation grants, much of its money comes from anonymous individuals interested in a particular project. As a nonprofit, the conservancy is not obligated to disclose the identity of major donors. And it doesn't. Myers said in some cases he works through attorneys, signs confidentiality agreements and doesn't know who the benefactors are. In other cases he does know, but the donors shun publicity.

"They want to pick and choose how they donate their money," Myers explained. "They don't want the world knocking on their front door. They don't want the recognition associated with wealth."

The Wildlands Conservancy staff, which includes a financial officer, outdoor education naturalists and a few preserve rangers, doesn't much like the spotlight either.

"They just like to be in the background," Eubanks said. "I don't get the impression they're trying to make a name for themselves."

As vice president of Catellus Development Corp.--the owner of the desert land--John Bezzant for years has negotiated with Myers, whom he describes as "straightforward, humble, genuine. He doesn't play games. He's not manipulative."

Myers grew up in La Habra, exploring the Chino Hills and spending part of his summers in the Sierra Nevada. When he was 17, he hiked the John Muir Trail. When he was 19, he ran a ranch in the Great Basin.

He studied botany, religion, psychology and literature in college, but never got a degree. "I just wanted to learn," he said. "I wanted to learn how to deal with my despair about seeing all the places I loved destroyed."

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