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L.A.'s King of the Hills

June 06, 2004|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

Joseph Edmiston, the first and only executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, has had a forceful hand in Southern California land preservation for three decades.

Before he was tapped to lead the state-run agency in 1980, Edmiston was a Sierra Club lobbyist and the director of a planning commission that helped shape the future of the Santa Monica Mountains. At a time when development was spreading through the hillsides and canyons, the conservancy tried to slow the tide.

With no steady source of cash, the conservancy was supposed to exist for four years, according to the state's original plan.

But Edmiston forged so many land deals that, 24 years later, the agency has swelled into a powerhouse that has acquired well over $300 million in land for public use.

Last year, the conservancy was instrumental in arranging the state's $150-million purchase of Ahmanson Ranch, a 2,900-acre oak savanna in east Ventura County that had been slated for a housing development.

Edmiston also runs the conservancy's sister agency, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which manages the conservancy's land with a staff of 101 planners, rangers, biologists, restoration experts and lawyers.

Edmiston earns $84,000 per year from his conservancy job, and draws no salary from the authority.

Both the conservancy and the authority are governed by boards of trustees; Edmiston is, in the words of Conservancy Chairman Jerome C. Daniel, just "hired help."

But in practice, observers say, Edmiston runs the show.

"Theoretically, on paper, Joe is an employee of the conservancy rather than being the dictator of the whole thing," said David Brown, a Calabasas planning commissioner who serves on the conservancy's advisory committee.

"But in practice, he does have a lot of influence."

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