Gaviota Coast Conservancy Pulls Out the Stops

By Jeff Wing   |   September 12, 2019
The Jack & Laura Dangermond Preserve. The photo will be beautifully framed with a brass plate “Coastal Legacy 2019” and presented by Gaviota Coast Conservancy for their outstanding philanthropy. (photo by Bill Zeldis)

On Saturday September 21, from 2 to 5 pm in the sun-dappled environs of the Music Academy of the West, Jack and Laura Dangermond will be honored with the Gaviota Coast Conservancy’s (GCC) Coastal Legacy Award for 2019 – a festive and deeply grateful acknowledgement of the couple’s show-stopping rescue of 24,000 long-contested acres with eight miles of shoreline along California’s storied Gaviota Coast. The award will be accepted in their stead by The Nature Conservancy’s Michael Bell, who is now Director of the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, and has been a warrior in the Gaviota trenches for some 20 years.

The event will feature delicious catered appetizers, libations, a silent auction, culminating paddle raise and live auction, and a throng of riotous conservation-types (if you can imagine). The Gaviota Coast Conservancy’s newly minted Executive Director (ED) Doug Kern will be in attendance – his embattled rotator cuff likely to endure hours of neighborly handshaking. The evening’s theme will be… the 11th hour salvation of precious California coastal habitat? Tech as the unlikely bodyguard of biosphere? The raw power of activist philanthropy? Jack and Laura? Love?


Refolding the Map

Okay. Two starry-eyed newlyweds are plying the California coast in high style. Or middling style, let’s charitably say. The lovebirds – our aforementioned Jack and Laura – have nary a dime between them, and what of it? They are crazily in love, recently hitched, and at large. Here they are now, tearing along the dotted line of California’s central coast in a car the size of a PT boat (late 1960s, you see). The giddy honeymooners from Redlands are hollering and laughing with the windows down, ‘60s haircuts blown to hell by automotive slipstream as they drink in with wide eyes this madly beautiful stretch of unique California coastline. When the ecstatic Just-Marrieds tire of driving for the day, they pull over and pitch camp, the car clicking and cooling nearby as they raise their little pup tent and eat Honeymoon rations by fire and starlight. By the by, Jack and Laura are seized by the beauty of this place – an actionable adoration that will helpfully stick in the couple’s craw for decades.

Just a slice of what the magnificent and rural Gaviota Coast looks like and why the GCC believes it’s worth saving (photo by Ken Pfeiffer)

In 1969 the husband-and-wife team will co-found the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) – a nascent tech giant whose innovations will marry digital mapping mojo to the analog loveliness of the natural world. Still later – in stupidly futuristic-sounding 2017 – the nutty kids (now more or less grown) will parlay a lifetime of cartographical munificence into preservation of their beloved pup-tent paradise. In perpetuity.

Direct This

At a glance, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy’s long-awaited Executive Director could be Irish actor Gabriel Byrne circa 1985. Doug Kern is seated across a sun-blanched patio table and holding forth on nature’s over eager capacity for self-renewal. His previous gig as Director of Conservation for the Mendocino Land Trust up north included efforts on behalf of endangered coho salmon. “You remove barriers,” Kern marvels, “and after, you know, four or five years of planning and two or three months of construction – the fish just… return! And the fish probably didn’t meet extensively,” he laughs, riffing on the byzantine human processes that can make earnest conservation efforts so glacial in the execution.

Ready or not, here I come! A kelp crab, one of the littlest creatures that you might see on the Guided Audubon Field Trip for 15 to Coal Oil Point Reserve and the new North Campus Open Space in the live auction, which will be led by none other than KEYT Senior Reporter John Palminteri (photo by Ken Pfeiffer)

When in December 2017 Jack and Laura Dangermond made a stunning donation to the Nature Conservancy, it allowed that global conservation juggernaut to purchase all 24,364 acres of the former Bixby Ranch holdings from Boston-based investment firm The Baupost Group, whose years of maneuvering to develop their 2007 investment had repeatedly run afoul of the pugnacious and legally armored Gaviota Planning Advisory Committee. The Dangermond’s jaw-dropping 2017 gift ended that wrestling match in a jiffy, marking the end of one fractious chapter in the ongoing “threatened coastal habitat” story, and the beginning of a complex stewardship.

Wealth Saves

“Gaviota Coast is a jewel of a place on the planet,” Executive Director Kern says emphatically. “It’s one of the most important places in the world on which to focus restoration efforts. Cold waters coming down from the north meet warm waters coming up from the south. That creates some of the most amazing habitat for special and unique creatures to live in, and to propagate.”

And propagation is key. The Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve is home to fourteen endangered species, and is otherwise in need of nature-augmenting lovingkindness – a bit of woodland and beach restoration here, some wise management of extant cattle herds there. “There are historic buildings out there, there are protected cultural sites out there. To open this sort of place up to public access while maintaining its integrity, that also takes a lot of planning and money.” This is the high-falutin care the Gaviota Coast Conservancy’s long-standing volunteer army could only dream about. Doug Kern knows from volunteering. These are his people.

From inside a wind cave on the Gaviota coast, the terrain could be from another planet (photo by Ken Pfeiffer)

“It is a great, great honor to be selected as Executive Director and to be part of this effort. The people who’ve been doing this have been volunteers. In many of the roles I’ve played, I was also a volunteer, so I really relate. I mean, we would do this for no pay. We would do this because it is just that important.” Kern pauses.

“I have the benefit of working with volunteers who all have real, serious expertise, and they’re funneling all this information to me – it is a great duty to take it all in and then be able to use it to make the Gaviota Coastal Conservancy more effective.” Kern’s official press photo shows a neatly combed Gabriel Byrne-type in a clean blue shirt and freshly-washed hair. This public-facing emblem is approximately half the story. The Gaviota Coast Conservancy’s first ever Exec Director looks at me with moistening eyes. “It has been the joy of a lifetime,” he says with cracking voice, “to be able to actually participate and be part of showing ‘let’s get our hands dirty.’

“There are many tasks ahead of the conservancy, and all of us who have joined with Michael Bell, who has a real job ahead of him directing that project.” Kern leans forward across the table. “24,000 acres,” he says with an incredulous grin. “I’ve been responsible for managing a 426-acre project, and that was an immense workload. So, Michael’s really got his hands full.”

Jack and Laura Dangermond made a fortune developing a digital mapping product used the world over for conservation, urban planning, and forecasting – and are paying the fortune forward. ESRI has donated the product outright to hundreds of nonprofits and NGOs who want to use their technology to better people’s lives and protect natural resources. So… wealth as handmaiden to beleaguered habitat? The New Philanthropy = conservation with a cape. Kern describes the perfect tag-team.

“It needs the combined efforts of people who have the means, and the people who have the passion to see those funds directed to permanent protection. But it all starts with people saying, ‘this is worth protecting.’ And then they have to keep protecting it. Over and over and over again.”


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