Couple donates $165 million to preserve 24,000 acres at Point Conception

A conservation group on Thursday purchased a sprawling stretch of Santa Barbara County coastline — a prized acquisition made possible by a $165-million gift from a couple who had long sought to protect the pristine ranchland from development.

The nonprofit Nature Conservancy acquired the Cojo-Jalama Ranches, which comprise roughly 24,000 acres and eight miles of coastline south of Vandenberg Air Force Base, from a New England investment firm, said Michael Bell, director of the conservancy’s California ocean program.

Valued for its sacred sites by the Chumash and operated for more than 100 years as a cattle ranch, the twin parcels straddling Point Conception are a time capsule of oak woodlands, coastal prairies and beaches whose breaks are revered by surfers.

“This is not just any place,” said Mike Sweeney, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in California. “It’s ridiculously beautiful out there. It’s not a big property, just an exquisitely placed property.”

Jutting out from the coast, Point Conception — sometimes referred to as the “elbow of California” — is a point of demarcation between the state’s distinct southern and northern ecosystems, a place where the cold Pacific current meets the warmer waters sweeping up from Baja California.

Santa Barbara County maintains a 23-acre park on the property at Jalama Beach on a sliver of coastline at the boundary of Vandenberg and the property. Under a separate agreement, the park could be enlarged, giving the public access to an additional 36 acres, including a mile of coastline.

“The property is at the intersection of many interests” — the Chumash, the military, surfers, ranchers and developers, Bell said. “It makes this land a conservation puzzle.”

The property will be renamed the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve for the entrepreneurs and longtime environmental preservation advocates who donated the money.

“Most people think of conservation in terms of the iconic places like Yosemite or the redwood forests or the Grand Canyon,” Jack Dangermond said in an interview. “For us, this oak woodland is the equivalent. It may not be as iconic, but California’s oak forests are just as important ecologically, and there are not many of them left.”

Dangermond said he and his wife first drove this portion of the California coast in 1967 when they were “kids on their honeymoon.”

The acquisition “is like a dream come true, a chance for us to realize some kids’ dreams to protect this land in perpetuity,” Dangermond said.

The couple founded their Redlands-based company, ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute), a developer of mapping and analytic software, in 1969, and had been interested in acquiring the land for the last 12 years.

The Cojo-Jalama Ranches are home to more than 50 endangered and rare species, Bell said. The mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers have created a “hot spot” of biodiversity, he added.

The Southwestern pond turtle and the Gaviota tarplant are among its unique species, and California quail and roadrunners also are abundant, Bell said. Wildlife corridors to the beaches have allowed badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions to flourish.

“This is truly a wild part of the California coastline and the most wild of Southern California,” Bell said. “This is a place where you can look down and see sea lions on the rocks, sight great white sharks off the coast and whales taking harbor and protection in the coves before rounding Point Conception north.”

The Nature Conservancy intends to maintain the cattle operations on the property and keep it closed to the public while it conducts an 18-month study of its resources in conjunction with UC Santa Barbara, Bell said. The Dangermonds have endowed a chair at the university that will research the area’s cultural and natural geography.

“We would like to create a world-class platform for research and conservation science,” Sweeney said.

The conservancy plans to manage the property, Bell said, in the same way that it manages the land it owns on Santa Cruz Island, where habitat and wildlife are monitored and visitation is limited to research and environmental education programs.

“I’m a strong believer in recreation, but some areas deserve to be protected in their natural form,” said Dangermond, citing not just the area’s delicate ecosystems but its archaeological and present-day significance to the Chumash.

Over the years, the Cojo-Jalama Ranches have been the focus of sporadic development efforts.

More than 100 years ago, there was talk of building a steel mill and a factory town on the Cojo Ranch. In 1912, Fred Bixby purchased that property and in 1939 acquired the adjacent Jalama Ranch.

His holdings became the privately held Bixby Ranch Co. In 1972, the company allowed construction of an oil processing facility on the bluffs near Cojo Beach with pipelines cutting across the property. The facility was decommissioned in 2003.

In 1992, the Air Force, worried that the Bixby Co. might build homes on the property, spent $22 million on restrictions to minimize potential safety issues related to Vandenberg’s nearby rocket-launch facility. The restrictions laid out where development such as golf courses, stables and homes could be built.

In 2007, before any development took place, the Bixby Co. sold the property for about $140 million to investors that included Boston-based hedge fund the Baupost Group. Soon after the sale, the ranch management company began digging wells, grading roads and removing native habitat in violation of the Coastal Act.

The California Coastal Commission, acting on complaints, notified the manager of the violations in 2011. Over the next few years, enforcement officers met with representatives of the owner but were unable to resolve the complaints, according to testimony at a recent commission hearing. When the Baupost Group took over managing the property in February, negotiations with the commission’s enforcement unit gained momentum.

On Nov. 9, the commission unanimously accepted a mitigation plan that called for planting 200 acres with oaks, removal of ice plants, native plant restoration, transferring 36 acres south of Jalama Beach to Santa Barbara County Parks and a payment of $500,000 to the state panel’s “violation remediation account.”

For Susan Jordan with the California Coastal Protection Network, the expansion, pending approval by the county, of the Jalama Beach County Park was “extraordinary.”

“I have goosebumps because getting that type of access has been impossible,” she said at the November hearing. “So for me, that’s the proverbial cherry on top of the cake.”

The Dangermonds said they hope their gift to the Nature Conservancy encourages similar philanthropic efforts.

“We’re willing to expose ourselves to some level of notoriety with the hope that it will inspire others to do what we did,” Jack Dangermond said. “These places are disappearing fast.”

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

Twitter: @tcurwen

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