By April Charlton
A pristine and rare stretch of California’s coastline in Santa Barbara County will be protected forever from bulldozers thanks to a $165 million donation allowing the privately held swath of land near Point Conception to be permanently preserved.
The Nature Conservancy announced Dec. 22 the purchase of the 24,000-plus-acre Jalama Cojo Ranches, also known locally as the Bixby Ranch. The land spans eight miles of undeveloped coastline and represents one of the state’s most iconic pieces of property.
Home to two working cattle ranches, the site features “a confluence of ecological, historical and cultural values across Native American, Spanish and American histories that have co-evolved for millennia,” according to the Conservancy.
Visible from space as the exact point on the coast where California bends inward, the property will be renamed The Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, and join the portfolio of protected lands owned and managed by the Conservancy.
“This is an incredibly rare, ecologically important place with eight miles of coast and centuries-old coastal oak woodlands,” Dangermond said. “This deserves to be preserved and managed by an organization like The Nature Conservancy.”
“Conservation isn’t just being nice to animals or plants, it’s investing in the continued life support systems of humans and all other species on the planet,” he added. “We need more people to step up to protect our last great places.”
Dangermond, president and co-founder of mapping and spatial-analysis technology company Esri, along with his wife, Laura, donated $165 million to the Conservancy, enabling the organization to purchase the ranch land that’s also home to at least 39 species of threatened or special status. Their donation is the largest in the organization’s history.
“There’s no place like it. It’s where Northern California and Southern California meet,” said Mike Sweeney, executive director California Chapter, The Nature Conservancy, about the property. “Standing there in the oaks, looking west across the ocean, you understand why this has been a spiritual place for millennia.”
The Nature Conservancy plans to immediately undertake an 18-month study to determine all of the resources on the property, while also developing a comprehensive plan for the long-term use and management of the new preserve.
In the meantime, the land will remain a private working cattle ranch.
“The vision is to first and foremost preserve these last-of-their-kind resources,” said Mark Reynolds, The Nature Conservancy senior scientist. “Longterm, the plan is to create a premier nature preserve for education, preservation and research, with carefully managed public access to areas that don’t jeopardize the ecological and cultural values of the land.”
Reynolds said the land is important to preserve because it’s “a bastion of last-of-its kind habitats, essential wildlife corridors, and cultural and historical values that need to be preserved and protected.”
Adjacent to a marine protected area, the property also connects the coast to the mountains and contains critical wildlife corridors. It also provides habitat for endangered species, including the snowy plover, red-legged frog and Western monarch butterfly.
“Part of The Nature Conservancy’s planning period is to explore a path forward through partnerships, to allow managed public access on the property to educate and inspire the public about the importance of protecting our natural world, while ensuring preservation of the ecological and cultural values of the land,” Reynolds said.
Over the years, the property has been under the threat of development several times, and former ranch owners were subject to a years-long enforcement action brought against them by the California Coastal Commission.
Resolution in the case was reached in November, with ranch owners, in part, agreeing to transfer 36 acres of the coastal land to Santa Barbara County for possible addition to a 23-acre county-maintained park on property at Jalama Beach.
Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell said the acquisition was nothing short of fantastic. Howell grew up visiting Jalama Beach with his grandmother.
“The fact that the whole ranch doesn’t ever face development is a huge win for the people of California,” Howell said. “I thought the possibility of adding to the park was great. This is fantastic.”
Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who worked with The Nature Conservancy during the final phase of the acquisition, said she could hardly believe “this day would actually come.”
“The cultural and ecological value of the newly named Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve is unparalleled in California, the county and the world,” Hartmann said. “This is a breath-taking act of foresight and generosity that will define the Central Coast from this day forward. It offers the most wonderful reason to celebrate this holiday season.”