With almost 40 million people, California is the most populous state in the U.S. Thousands of acres have been paved with concrete, countless trees have been cut down, and lots of wildlife habitat has been disrupted to accommodate the explosive growth there over the last century.
Aside from the state's storied national parks, such as Yosemite and Joshua Tree, few large swaths of "old California" land remain intact. Even less of that natural land can be found along the Southern California coast, which is highly prized for homes and other development.
Now, a $165 million gift to the Nature Conservancy will preserve nearly 25,000 acres of pristine land in Santa Barbara County. The land was once the Bixby Ranch, then later became the Cojo Jalama Ranches, a privately owned piece of coastal property that the LA Times once called "the last perfect place." In 2007, the ranch was sold to a financial firm called the Baupost Group.
But as of Thursday, the region will officially be designated a nature preserve.
The land is far from just scenic. It plays host to diverse wildlife and plant species and sits at an intersection where ecosystems begin to transition between Southern and Northern California.
According to Mark Reynolds, the Nature Conservancy scientist overseeing the land acquisition, the property touches two major terrestrial biomes—or key animal and plant communities—and two major marine biomes. For many animals in Northern California, the region is the southernmost part of their range, and for many animals in Southern California, the region is the northernmost part of their range.
"It's one of the most prominent geographic regions in California," Reynolds says. It's one of the best examples of wild California coast left, he says, and one of the most biodiverse places in the state.
The property sits adjacent to Los Padres National Forest and other protected areas, making it an important wildlife corridor. Fourteen threatened and endangered species, like monarch butterflies and red-legged tree frogs, can be found in the preserve. It's also home to iconic species like mountain lions and burrowing owls. (Learn more from the California Natural Diversity Database.)
The preserve is also an important archaeological site and once belonged to the Chumash Native Americans.
A Generous Donor
Because the property has been under private ownership for decades, it remains largely pristine, with a small footprint from a recent working cattle ranch.
The donation that enables the Nature Conservancy to buy the land comes from Jack and Laura Dangermond, the couple that cofounded Esri, a company that specializes in geographic information systems that fuel powerful mapping tools. The enterprise has made them wealthy, but before the high school sweethearts were making enough money to buy California's last perfect place, they spent part of their honeymoon on the former Bixby Ranch.
For the past two years, the Nature Conservancy and the Dangermonds have been exploring how to acquire the property. According to Jack Dangermond, they were fearful it could be sold to other private owners and could eventually fracture.
The couple has been conservation-minded since the genesis of their company in 1969. Jack Dangermond has worked with the Nature Conservancy for the past three decades, and he sits on the National Geographic Society's board of trustees.
Mid-interview, he pulls out a small card with a picture of John F. Kennedy and one of that president's famous quotes: "One person can make a difference, and everyone should try."
When it comes to environmental protection, Dangermond says, "We need real action, not just [talking] or politicizing. Just real conservation and boots on the ground."
His gift to the Nature Conservancy will allow the land trust to preserve the property in perpetuity. The Dangermonds and the conservation nonprofit plan to allow cattle ranching to continue for the next 18 months. During this time, the preserve's new stewards will access the region's ecology and any fire risks.
A Future Laboratory
A partnership with the University of California Santa Barbara will fall into place within the year, says Dangermond, allowing students to access the reserve for research. Everyone from ecologists to archaeologists to entomologists will be able to conduct field surveys in the old California region.
But the preserve will otherwise be closed to the public, to enable research in a region that is otherwise subject to rapid development.
"We need to have some areas that are left intact," he says.
Reynold agrees: "As we think about this as a conservation stronghold, that can really give us ideas about how to manage places that are more impacted."
"This region is experiencing climate change like many places in the world," the scientist adds. "[Animal] ranges are changing. Flowering cycles are changing. It's evident in coastal California and in this region."
Having a pristine natural laboratory on a biologically valuable section of California coastline, Reynolds hopes, will help scientists better understand those changes.