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The State | COLUMN ONE

The Man Behind the Land

David Gelbaum has shunned publicity while giving millions to preserve California wilderness and teach youths about nature.

October 27, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Gelbaum has made his largest contributions to the 10-year-old Wildlands Conservancy, an Oak Glen, Calif.-based group that he co-founded with David Myers, who has remained the group's executive director.

Myers, an ardent environmentalist, wanted to sell 640 acres of desert land he owned near Yucca Valley and use most of the proceeds for other conservation projects. In 1994, he placed a newspaper ad seeking "a conservation-minded donor" who would buy, but not develop, the land. Gelbaum answered the ad. They have been working together ever since.

Gelbaum now acknowledges that he has been the biggest benefactor of the conservancy and its sister organization, the Wildlands Endowment Fund, which has taken in $157.8 million for land preservation, outdoor education and related programs.

But for the last decade, Myers avoided revealing the identity of his reclusive angel, despite growing curiosity about who was bankrolling this obscure conservation organization that was buying and swapping real estate with the gusto of a 19th century land baron.

Beginning in 1995, the group began making strategic land purchases, now totaling 70 square miles, in order to link the San Bernardino, San Jacinto and Big Horn Mountains with Joshua Tree National Park.

The next year, Wildlands purchased a 97,000-acre former cattle ranch in the foothills of the San Emigdio Mountains, northwest of Gorman, where a developer once hoped to build thousands of luxury homes.

Just outside metropolitan Los Angeles, the ranch, renamed Wind Wolves, has become the West Coast's largest privately owned nature preserve, its cascading hills and steep canyons an hour and half drive from the nation's second largest city.

By 2000, Wildlands had filled many of the largest holes in the wilderness tapestry created by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. The legislation created the Mojave National Preserve, enlarged Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments and elevated both to national park status but left intact several privately owned parcels.

Wildlands bought out the largest of the landowners, the former real estate arm of the Santa Fe Pacific Corp. railroad, which had threatened to open the desert to development. Wildlands acquired 1,000 square miles and turned over the land to the federal government.

In 2001, Gelbaum branched out with two back-to-back anonymous gifts to the Sierra Club Foundation that dwarfed all previous individual contributions to the club. The $101.5 million in donations led to a 10-fold increase in the club's Youth in Wilderness programs and expansion of many other club activities.

But the windfall caused a stir internally. Gelbaum's identity, known only to a few Sierra Club officials, became an issue in a bitter struggle for control of the club's board of directors.

A slate of candidates, which wanted the club to call for tighter controls on immigration to stabilize the U.S. population and its impact on the environment, demanded to know the source of the donations. The candidates contended that the club's leadership opposed their election partly because of pressure brought by the secret donor.

"Is this foreign money? Is it money that comes with special obligations? I would want to know I'm not running a laundry or being a front group for an entity that doesn't have the best interests of the United States at heart," said former Colorado Gov. David Lamm.

Lamm and other like-minded candidates were soundly defeated in a vote of club members last April, and the source of the money was not revealed. But clues surfaced during the flap.

A Sierra Club official let slip a comment about a pair of unnamed brothers. That and other bits of information led The Times to Gelbaum, who, with his brother, Daniel, sat on the Wildlands Conservancy's board of directors, along with Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

David Gelbaum insisted that he played no role in the election. He dismissed allegations that he is calling the shots at the club in any other way.

"None of that is true," he said. "I'm not some Svengali. I'm not that engaged."

But he said Pope long had known where he stood on the contentious issue. "I did tell Carl Pope in 1994 or 1995 that if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me."

Gelbaum said he was a substantial donor at the time but not yet the club's largest benefactor. Immigration arose as an issue in 1994 because Proposition 187, which threatened to deny public education and health care to illegal immigrants, was on the state's ballot.

He said he was so upset by the idea of "pulling kids out of school" that he donated more than $180,000 to the campaign to oppose Proposition 187. After the measure passed, he said, he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to civil rights lawyers who ultimately got the measure struck down in court.

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