By Ann Van Leer
People often wonder how we acquire land and protect it. There is no magic formula other than hard work and persistence by people, as the land can’t save itself.
Our newest preserve in the Olivenhain area, the LeoMar Preserve, to honor Leonard Wittwer and Martha Blane, two founders of the Escondido Creek Conservancy, is an example.
After three decades of conservation work, we know a lot about the landscape of the Escondido Creek watershed, which areas have the best remaining native habitat and how animals move through these last undeveloped areas along the coast and inland.
We have created a target acquisition list and are always on the hunt, as we are in a race against time to get ahead of development.
One of the first dilemmas: Do property owners want to sell? Unfortunately, because of the potential for development in Southern California, property owners often wish to refrain from selling for conservation as they assume they will get more money in development. That is only sometimes the case.
As a developer would, we offer to pay a fair market price. Convincing sellers to work with us is where hard work and persistence step up. We write letters to property owners introducing ourselves and asking for a meeting to discuss a potential acquisition. They often ignore us.
We try to figure out someone who knows someone who knows someone who might be able to make an introduction to us. We have an impressive track record of successful purchases, and sometimes that works. Other times not.
Persistence continues. I have personally delivered flowers, honey, fruit, candy, expensive liquor and other incentives to property owners to get a meeting. Sometimes that works.
After 30 years, we take the long view. We often know a property owner is just not ready to sell when we ask. We understand, take notes and revisit the request periodically. We’ve had some properties on our radar for decades and keep checking in with owners to assess if circumstances have changed.
The next obvious dilemma is how do we fund a conservation purchase when we have a willing seller? The Conservancy, sadly, doesn’t have a checkbook that lends itself to multi-million-dollar land transactions.
This is parallel persistence; while we are lining up property owners, we also seek grant and private funding to allow us to complete purchases.
Additional time is spent on due diligence, i.e., researching properties to ensure there is nothing wrong with the title or the land that would compromise the Conservancy’s ability to protect it in perpetuity. All this takes people, persistence, time and money.
We’ve all heard the quote: the harder you work, the luckier you get. This has been true for the Conservancy. The people of the Conservancy — staff, board members and donors who support our work — are the reason the Conservancy has been able to help protect over 7,000 acres and currently owns or manages 3,000 acres of conservation land. It is people that save the land.
The LeoMar Preserve is the most recent example of what people can do together. Through hard work and persistence, the Conservancy has secured three strategic properties as the cornerstones of the preserve.
We are thrilled in 2022 to have an additional property in escrow, 49 acres, located between Elfin Forest and Olivenhain.
More good news: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was awarded a $1,827,800 federal grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Section 6 Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund program to be provided to the Conservancy in 2023 to pay part of the purchase price. We are now seeking the balance of the sale price from state grants.
Once purchased, the land will be protected by the Conservancy’s dedicated land staff, who work tirelessly through their efforts and by engaging volunteers in restoration.
Another critical component is our outdoor educators who work with students so that the next generation will love the land like we do.
We launched our latest campaign, “All Hands In,” to connect our supporters with our mission to protect and restore the Escondido Creek watershed. Please see escondidocreek.org for opportunities where you can help us save the land!
Ann Van Leer is the executive director of the Escondido Creek Conservancy. Read more Conservancy Corner columns.