The Once and Future Coast—Land&People

Laguna Creek Beach is small compared with the broad beaches of southern California, reached by a winding path that parts a thicket of poison hemlock and wild radish, then skirts a freshly plowed brussels sprouts field. But when you get there, the beach is spectacular: a crescent of sand facing a jade green sea, book-ended south and north by steep cliffs, backed by a broad lagoon and a tule marsh, and beyond that the hills of the Coast Range rising lush and green to dark redwood forests. It is quiet enough to dream.

Beaches fit the complications of the human heart. The gentle curve of the horizon rolls toward us in waves, turns suddenly muscular and crashes against the shore, then spills placidly back into itself. It speaks to us of a balance between impulse and abidance, says we can be lively and interesting yet keep the peace of sunny days and blue skies. A beach, too, is the one place it’s fine to leave your footprints; in a few hours, wind and the pull of the moon will reclaim them. It’s a place we can be both human and natural.

Beaches on the Central California coast have added attractions. Where the beaches of southern California and much of the Atlantic shore are walled off by highways, rows of houses, or boardwalk strips of shrill commerce, most of this coast is still as it was a century ago. One can look inland into the rising hills and brooding forests and feel oneself to be a part of the wider landscape. You see the fog rise from the ocean, condense onto oak leaf and redwood needle in the hills, drip to earth, trickle into alder-wooded creek, swirl quietly past the legs of herons in beachside marsh, then make a last dash through the sand to rejoin the sea. You feel connections to the wide reach of the horizon, the rhythms of rain and surf, the smaller comings and goings of sea lion and beach swallow and hermit crab. The edge of the continent here becomes also the edge of something larger, perhaps of spirit.

Californians increasingly need these edges: while population has doubled since 1960, state park visits have quintupled. The coast is increasingly threatened. Seventy percent of the state’s population lives within an hour of the shore, and with that population expected to grow from thirty-two million to forty-seven million in the next twenty years, development pressures are intense.

That makes the recent purchase of Laguna Creek Beach all the more remarkable. For with the purchase–by Save-the-Redwoods League and the Trust for Public Land, with funding from private donors, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the state of California–comes not only the protection of this beach and its adjoining wetlands and uplands, but also seven miles of California coast: a total of 7,500 acres.

It’s a monumental purchase. This parcel, owned for a century by the Coast Dairies and Land Company, is the third-largest privately held piece of the California coast from San Francisco to the Mexican border. The land hosts endangered steelhead and coho salmon and rare plant communities such as coastal prairie and coastal scrub. In all, the acquisition protects from intensive development six major beaches, seven wetlands, 760 acres of farmlands, and 700 acres of forest. It promises limited public access to an area larger than San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, San Diego’s Balboa Park, and New York City’s Central Park combined.

What’s more, it is part of the largest private conservation effort in history, the kickoff project for the Packard Foundation’s $175 million initiative to protect key California lands. If the initiative works as expected, it could leverage that amount to as much as $500 million, setting an example of how to bring private and public financing back into conservation.

Pastures By The Sea

Two miles back from the beach, the redwood forests are deep and cool. The trees are second growth; much of the old growth went into San Francisco houses a century ago. On the first ridge are beds of limestone and shale that, as early as the 1840s, were mined and kilned into cement. In the 1850s, John Davenport was whaling from the present location of Davenport, and he built a long wharf that would allow local timber cutters, tanbark harvesters, and lime kiln operators to ship their products to San Francisco. In the 1860s, Swiss dairymen put cows on the hillside pasturelands and converted the grass to milk and Swiss cheese. Two intermarried Swiss families, the Respinis and the Morettis, formed the Coast Dairies and Land Company and acquired in its name the lands of two entire Spanish grants, from Scott Creek in the north to Laguna Creek in the south. The logging played out and the whaling vanished, but the lime kilns survived. In 1906 a large cement plant was built at Davenport and brought hundreds of Italian imigrants to work here. Surviving today as the RMC Lonestar cement plant, its products and concrete rebuilt San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and later went into the naval facilities at Pearl Harbor. There are pieces of this land in patios and house foundations all around northern California.

By the 1920s, the families that owned Coast Dairies and Land had packed up and gone back to Switzerland; they and their heirs continued to lease land to local farmers and dairy operators. By midcentury, better refrigeration and transportation gave dairies east of the mountains competitive advantages, and the coastside dairies closed. In the 1950s, but for the cement plant and a few leased artichoke and brussels sprouts fields, the stretch of coast from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay was more or less as it had been in the nineteenth century.

Fending Off Development

But California was growing rapidly. Santa Cruz was poised to expand north toward Davenport. Its 1961 general plan included a convention center, major hotels, and a freeway cutting through the center of downtown. Recalls Peter Scott, who came to Santa Cruz to teach physics at the newly opened university campus, “It was more or less big development and roads everywhere.” A 10,000-unit subdivision was planned for the Wilder Ranch, just north of town.

The proposed Wilder Ranch development threatened to separate Santa Cruz from its sense of place. Celia Scott, now mayor of Santa Cruz, and in 1969 a land use planning consultant, formed Save the Coast and lobbied against the developments. The city of Santa Cruz refused to annex the north coast ranches, and instead assembled a committee to rewrite the general plan with coastal protection in mind. The county supervisors likewise said no to large-scale development, and Wilder Ranch ultimately became a state park. Says Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt, “People live here because they are deeply committed to the natural resources. The battle for preserving open space and agricultural lands has probably been the political focus in Santa Cruz County for the last twenty-five years. This is a community that really became convinced that we could control our own destiny, that we didn’t have to accept growth as inevitable.”

But the Coast Dairies property lay seven miles beyond the reach of the city of Santa Cruz. The absentee landlords were two generations removed from the coast and its protectionist sympathies, and selling to a developer was tempting. Says Robert Bosso, a Santa Cruz attorney who carried out the directives of the Swiss families as president of the Coast Dairies and Land, “I think up to the 1960s, the expectation was that it would be urban.” In the 1970s, the giant utility Pacific Gas & Electric Company held an option on the property with a view to building a nuclear power plant, until the likelihood of a major earthquake proved high. In 1993 the California Coastal Conservancy secured an option on the property, but when a 1994 statewide parks bond measure failed to pass, Coast Dairies went back on the market.

Given the long list of parkland purchases awaiting funding, there seemed to be less and less chance that any public institution would be able to step in and save the land. Federal spending from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy parkland and wildlife habitat has dropped nearly 70 percent since 1980. In the same period, state funding for park expansion has fallen about 90 percent. Californians have not passed a parks bond measure since 1988.

In 1996, a Las Vegas developer held an option on Coast Dairies with a plan to develop it as 139 separate parcels, and the plan stood a good chance of evading California Coastal Commission and local agency review. To meet Coastal Commission rules, each house would have been hidden behind a screen of planted trees. Says Mary Angle, executive director of Save-the-Redwoods League, “The development would have blocked the view of the ocean and created nonnative habitat.”

New Partnerships and a New Initiative

Save-the-Redwoods League, which had just negotiated purchase of the 2,400-acre Gray Whale Ranch adjoining the Wilder Ranch State Park, saw Coast Dairies as a strategic link between existing parks and open space to the north, east, and south. Meeting with the Nevada developer and with officials of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation–which had long been active in protecting lands along the Big Sur coast–Save-the-Redwoods League successfully negotiated the purchase of the developer’s option. TPL is now collaborating with Save-the-Redwoods League and the Packard Foundation to complete the purchase. TPL holds the option and is poised to become the owner of the company and the property this fall.

While these negotiations were taking place, dramatic changes were taking place at the Packard Foundation. With the death in 1996 of electronics industry pioneer David Packard, bequest of his stockholdings made the foundation the third largest in the nation. Long active in conservation, it was prepared to make a larger commitment. And the strategic location, large scale, and complicated funding of the Coast Dairies transaction helped to shape the new program.

Called “Conserving California Landscapes,” the Packard initiative aims to protect at least a quarter million acres of sustainable natural systems and agricultural lands in California’s Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, and central coast regions. Funding would go toward the purchase of land, conservation easements, and water rights, and to help local groups such as land trusts become effective in conserving and managing such lands. The foundation itself would not buy or own the land but would provide the funds to other organizations with expertise in land transactions and stewardship. It would seek to generate local interest in sustainable uses, to emphasize systemic approaches such as watershed management strategies, to sustain local economies, to build local land stewardship, and to find ways to pay the long-term costs of protecting such lands.

Under the program the foundation would provide up to fifty percent of the funding for any purchase, hoping to entice private and public sources to contribute the remainder. Thus, it could leverage the $175 million it planned to commit to as much as $500 million. Says Packard Foundation Conservation Program Director Jeanne Sedgwick, “We’re really concerned about the lack of public money for open space and habitat acquisition. We won’t consider the program a success unless we reverse these downward trends in public financing.” And with the recent upturn in California’s economy producing budget surpluses, together with the prospect of large matching funds from private sources, state and federal funding might open up again. Says Republican state senator Bruce McPherson; “The Packard initiative helps the state immensely to recognize that it should have an obligation to spend money to protect land.” McPherson and state assembly member Fred Keeley helped secure $6 million from the state of California toward the purchase of Coast Dairies.

The initiative also seeks to set an example for other foundations, which largely stopped funding land acquisitions twenty years ago. Says Sedgwick, “The idea of actually protecting land outright is one the foundation world has moved away from. We want to make funding of habitat and open space fashionable in the foundation world again.”

The Packard Foundation and anonymous private donors put up most of the money to complete the purchase of Coast Dairies and thereby inaugurated the “Conserving California Landscapes” initiative. Says Robert Stephens, a member of the foundation’s conservation committee, “This land was one of the inspirations to get this whole program moving. It is the first property purchased under the program, and we’re hoping it’s a model.”

After negotiating the transaction, Save-the-Redwoods League transferred the option to the Trust for Public Land, whose national scope and experience provided advantages in working out long-term sustainable-management strategies. Working with Save-the-Redwoods League, The Nature Conservancy, the California State Coastal Conservancy, and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, TPL will soon turn to the task of developing a management plan aimed at protecting the full range of natural resources, continuing existing uses, and increasing public access. Says TPL project manager Ann Cole, “We very much want to include the tenants, the people who live right near the property, and the larger community in the planning process. There’s a real opportunity for innovation and to create multiple benefits–preserving agricultural lands, restoring wildlife habitat, and providing for a variety of recreation.”

Locally, the purchase has been a broadly popular move. Says Acacia Smith, who grew up on the coast and still lives in the woods a few miles north of Davenport, “I think the purchase of the ranch is really a deciding point, and I’m glad to see the land stay so much the way it was.”

Says Harry Reppert, environmental officer for the RMC Lonestar cement plant, “It is really encouraging, because everybody has an interest in working toward being good neighbors and in having all our current land uses continue.”

For those who have struggled so long to protect the central California coast, it is a moment of triumph. Says Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt, “Today you can leave the city of Santa Cruz and drive sixteen miles to the border of San Mateo County and basically see agriculture and open space that is what California once was–and what, with the protection of the Coast Dairies ranch, it will always be.”

Land & People, Fall, 1998
Peter Steinhart writes about natural history and environmental affairs. He is the author of Two Eagles/Dos Aguilas and The Company of Wolves.