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The Natural : Land use: Joe Edmiston is the consummate deal-maker, procuring thousands of acres for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. He’s also developed many admirers and detractors.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First there were the sparse domestic budgets of the Reagan-Bush years. Then came the deficit-reduction fever of the Clinton Administration. It hasn’t been a picnic for those who would acquire public parkland, not even for a wheeler-dealer such as Joseph T. Edmiston.

But as the only executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the state agency created in 1980 to acquire parkland in the mountains, Edmiston has thrived.

Indeed, he has gained a reputation as an aggressive and innovative parks advocate. Even his detractors acknowledge his remarkable success at expanding parklands during more than a decade of tightfisted government spending and spiraling land prices.

In his 14 years at the helm, the agency has managed--often in jigsaw-puzzle fashion--to buy, swap for or procure as donations 20,000 acres of private land in the spectacular mountain corridor that stretches from Griffith Park to Point Mugu in Ventura County. That’s a land area more than half the size of San Francisco.

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When the task has demanded it, he has enlisted the support of powerful political allies, outsmarted fellow bureaucrats, struck deals with movie stars and real estate developers and charmed community and environmental leaders.

“Joe’s record of accomplishment speaks for itself,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a longtime ally who as a state legislator led the effort to establish the conservancy.

Others, however, hold a different view.

Edmiston is “more interested in personal power than in conservation,” declared Mary Weisbrock, whose group, Save Open Space, finds him too quick to compromise with developers.

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Still others say he can be ruthless and vindictive with those who dare cross him.

“Joe has a difficult time separating professional considerations from his own personal feelings,” said Peter Ireland, who was forced out of his job at the agency last year after butting heads with Edmiston.

Bearded, baritone-voiced and armed with a lightning wit, Edmiston’s powerful persona and zeal for deal-making has made him, to friend and foe alike, virtually indistinguishable from the agency he heads.

“Joe Edmiston is the conservancy,” said Jerry Daniel, the agency’s board chairman. “Without Joe I sincerely believe that the organization would crumble to pieces.”

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Not surprisingly, Edmiston is the conservancy’s key player as the agency prepares to take on two potential make-or-break challenges this year.

In June, voters will decide the fate of a $2-billion statewide bond initiative that would generate $132 million for the conservancy and its affiliates. It is no coincidence that the measure, sponsored by the California Planning and Conservation League, treats the conservancy generously. Edmiston helped draft it, as he did a similar measure sponsored by the same group and approved by voters in 1988.

This year’s measure, known by the acronym CALPAW, would also make the agency permanently eligible to receive money from the state’s General Fund and undertake land acquisition projects as far afield as the Whittier Hills and San Gabriel Mountains.

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While the June vote represents a potential boon for the conservancy, a second test threatens to be the agency’s bane: Opponents in the state Legislature are pushing proposals to rein in the agency.

Several lawmakers, led by state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), object to the agency’s tactics, particularly its controversial attempt to use eminent domain to wrest 245 acres in the heart of the mountains from Soka University.

They are considering legislation to force the conservancy to reimburse state bond funds with the money it gets for transferring parkland to the federal government, no small change considering the agency has reaped $35 million from the transfer of about 5,000 acres to the National Park Service in little more than a decade.

Conservancy supporters were stunned last month when state Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-Modesto), long counted among the agency’s friends, joined Wright in criticizing it.

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“We are constantly looking at reinventing government, and at some point you may get reinvented,” McCorquodale warned during a Senate oversight committee hearing.

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At the center of the storm is Edmiston, 44, who shrugs off such attacks by saying they come with the territory.

“I’m the Sgt. York in the Jeep,” he said. “I provide a nice wide target to shoot at.”

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A self-proclaimed workaholic who wears a wrist calculator to figure per-acre land prices, Edmiston has literally wheeled and dealed all over the Santa Monica Mountains.

Beginning in 1989, he managed to torpedo an effort by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts to put a garbage dump in scenic Towsley Canyon near Santa Clarita, even though the landfill agency had already acquired an option on the property.

Edmiston bought two small parcels, including one near the mouth of the canyon that provided the only feasible truck route between the landfill site and the Golden State Freeway.

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Edmiston’s critics, however, say his deal-making often comes at the environment’s expense.

“In many of his deals the mountains are clearly the loser,” said Siegfried Othmer, a Sherman Oaks activist who accuses Edmiston of doing the bidding of developers.

Othmer cites two recent transactions.

In Calabasas, the conservancy last year endorsed a luxury housing development on 938 acres after the developer, Micor Venture, agreed to cluster the 250 houses it hopes to build on the property and set aside nearly 700 acres of the tract as public parkland.

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Opponents say it was a Faustian bargain, noting that the houses were to be built in a pristine canyon that is an important wildlife habitat. They have filed suit to block the project.

Also controversial was the conservancy’s purchase last year of the 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch in Ventura County from entertainer Bob Hope. Part of a complicated land swap, it ranks as the conservancy’s single largest land acquisition ever.

Ultimately, the agency stands to acquire another 7,000 acres in the mountains owned by Hope and the Ahmanson Land Co. But the rest of the deal hinges on whether Ahmanson and its partners proceed with plans to develop a $1-billion mini-city for 8,600 residents.

In promoting the Hope land swap and the Calabasas development, Edmiston switched hats and acted as a lobbyist for the builders before regulatory agencies.

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He makes no apologies.

“I talk to developers because they’re the ones who own the land,” he said. “If you aren’t willing to be pragmatic, you’re nowhere in (the parks procurement) business, which some people have a difficult time understanding.”

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Edmiston is proud of the Bob Hope deal, commemorated by the deed to Jordan Ranch framed on his Malibu office wall. As befits a man who sees parkland preservation in strategic terms, his office bookshelves are crammed with volumes dealing with the tactics and strategy of warfare.

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During an interview, Ruth Kilday, the head of the Mountains Conservancy Foundation, which works closely with the conservancy, stopped by to deliver a framed photo as a gift.

The photograph depicts Edmiston’s latest triumph, Barbra Streisand’s 24-acre Malibu estate, which the entertainer recently donated to the conservancy for use as a conservation research center.

But even such a gift carries a price.

Streisand’s Ramirez Canyon neighbors have already begun to fret about the traffic the center may generate. Edmiston has suggested a road could be built to bypass that enclave, a notion that hasn’t played well with some environmentalists.

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Critics also complain that Edmiston oversteps his authority.

Earlier this month he was accused of lobbying against the appointment of Ireland, his former subordinate, as Los Angeles’ representative to the conservancy board. Despite an early overture to Ireland, Mayor Richard Riordan appointed actor Ed Begley Jr.

Edmiston declined to comment on the Ireland matter.

Edmiston lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Pepper, and their seven children. His wife, the founder of a camp program for children, is the daughter of Beverly Hills Mayor Max Salter.

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He grew up in East Los Angeles, an only child whose parents exhibited a keen interest in local politics and environmental causes. His father, an engineer who invented a machine used in canning fruit, and his mother, whom he described as an “activist housewife,” shared a passion for the outdoors.

Edmiston was a student at West Los Angeles School of Law in the early 1970s when he realized he wanted to be a conservationist. He had earlier graduated from USC, which he attended on a debate scholarship.

He abandoned law school, at age 24, when he was offered a $500-a-month job as a Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento.

“My job was to preach to the heathen(s),” he said of his four years spent promoting environmental legislation, including the bill that established the California Coastal Commission.

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By 1977 he had caught the attention of then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed him to the Santa Monica Mountains Comprehensive Planning Commission, the conservancy’s forerunner. The post made him the logical choice for his current job. He earns $65,000 a year.

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His agency works closely with the National Park Service and the state park system to acquire parkland. It receives little directly from the state--less than $150,000 this fiscal year.

Neither has it been able to count on much help from the federal government. For several years in the early 1980s the Reagan Administration eliminated acquisition funds for local parks. This year, the agency’s administrative budget, including salaries for its 11-member staff, is $650,000.

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Typically, the conservancy finances the purchase of a given piece of parkland, sells it to state parks or to the federal government for inclusion in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and uses the proceeds to obtain more land. It does so through a variety of innovative means, which observers credit largely to Edmiston.

The agency often intervenes to snatch up land as it comes on the market, without waiting for the federal government to complete the often cumbersome process of appropriating money. Park enthusiasts say the practice has preserved thousands of acres that may have fallen to development.

But with deficit-cutting the watchword these days in Washington, there are few federal dollars to go around. For the current fiscal year, the Clinton Administration allocated $4.5 million for land acquisition in the Santa Monicas, compared to $11.5 million during the last year of the Bush presidency.

Over the years, the lion’s share of the conservancy’s money--nearly $100 million in all--has come from a series of voter-approved state and local bond measures. Proposition 117, commonly known as the Mountain Lion Initiative, netted the agency $50 million in 1990, while Proposition A, approved by Los Angeles County voters in 1992, brought in another $40 million.

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To subsidize the meager sum provided directly by the state for staff and office expenses, the conservancy must rely on interest it earns from unspent bond money. As a result, it seems almost always strapped for cash.

That could change in a hurry with passage of the June ballot measure. The measure would provide $132 million, more than doubling the bond funds the agency and its affiliates have received to date.

The conservancy’s legislative problems may not be solved as easily. Supporters insist that the agency’s troubles with lawmakers stem from the dispute over Tokyo-based Soka University’s property.

Parks enthusiasts, including National Park Service officials, have long coveted the 245-acre campus--on the site of the former King Gillette Ranch--as the ideal spot for a visitor center and park headquarters for the national recreation area.

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The conservancy, through one of its affiliated agencies, took the unprecedented step of instituting condemnation proceedings last year after the university rejected a bid to buy the property for more than $19 million.

Soka, which operates a language school for about 100 international students at the site, wants to build a 3,400-student liberal arts college there.

Parks enthusiasts view the site, located in a valley at the foot of dramatic peaks in the Santa Monicas, as vital to the decades-long effort to piece together an expansive mountain park.

The university, meanwhile, has hired powerful lobbyists to protect its interests in Washington and Sacramento, with impressive results.

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Soka’s influence could be seen in this year’s federal appropriation for Santa Monica Mountains land acquisition. The measure’s language precluded any of the funds being used to procure the campus.

Fearing that Soka might throw its considerable weight behind a campaign to defeat the measure, sponsors of the June ballot initiative also inserted a provision to restrict the conservancy from using any of the proceeds to buy Soka property.

The agency’s backers, meanwhile, say they expect a full-scale assault in the Legislature this year from lawmakers sympathetic to Soka to either abolish or cripple the conservancy.

“Soka is a very powerful organization with lots of money that it spends in abundance in lobbying in Washington and Sacramento,” said Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood), a close friend of Edmiston. “I think it poses a grave threat to the conservancy.”

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Soka spokesman Jeff Ourvan denies that the university is out to get the conservancy, although he does not disguise his ire at the agency and its executive director.

“Joe Edmiston fancies himself as the William Mulholland of the 1990s,” Ourvan said. “But where Mulholland brought water as an essential resource to Southern California, Edmiston’s mission is a park headquarters, which is hardly vital to people of the region.”

Edmiston, who realizes the months ahead may be the bumpiest yet for his agency, manages to project an appearance of calm. Some associates, however, speculate he may have tired of the job and would welcome a change. He may have signaled as much last year, when he applied--unsuccessfully--to be director of the National Park Service.

Edmiston, uncomfortable discussing his personal ambitions, said he wishes he had gotten the park service post. He insists, however, that he is not looking to bail out of the conservancy as it enters a politically turbulent period. “I love what I do.”

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Joe Edmiston’s Mountain Kingdom

Executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy since 1980, has led the agency’s effort to create a comprehensive park system in the Santa Monicas. These are among the conservancy’s key acquisition projects.

1) CIRCLE X RANCH

Size: 1,655 acres

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Location: Northwest of Leo Carrillo State Beach and adjacent to Point Mugu State Park.

Features: Site of 3,111-foot high Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. Has extensive hiking trails.

Status: The conservancy bought the land for $5.85 million from the Boy Scouts of America in 1987. The property was transferred to the National Park Service in 1989.

2) JORDAN RANCH

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Size: 2,300 acres.

Location: Simi Hills, north of Agoura Hills.

Features: Originally to be the site of upscale homes and a golf course, the land includes an oak-lined canyon and plateau and Simi Peak, the highest point in the Simi Hills. The property, accessible through Cheeseboro Canyon Park, has hiking, horseback riding and bicycling trails. Not yet open to the public.

Status: The conservancy bought Jordan Ranch for $16.7 million from Bob Hope in June, 1993, and immediately sold it to the National Park Service. The conservancy had earlier bought a separate 400-acre parcel from Hope and is trying to purchase two other properties from the entertainer totaling more than 4,600 acres.

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Value: $16.7 million

3) SOKA UNIVERSITY

Size: 245 acres.

Location: Calabasas, adjacent to Malibu Creek State Park and the National Park Service’s Diamond X Ranch.

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Features: In the geographic heart of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the property includes 300-year-old oak groves, meadows and stands of sycamore and eucalyptus. Was the site of a 7,000 year-old Chumash village.

Status: Soka University in 1991 turned down a $19 million offer from the conservancy. Since then, the conservancy has been trying to acquire the land by eminent domain. The matter is being decided in court.

4) TEMESCAL GATEWAY PARK

Size: 20 acres

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Location: Pacific Palisades, adjacent to Topanga State Park

Features: Temescal Gateway Park has a year-round creek, a waterfall and tall sycamores, alders and oaks. It is believed to have been inhabited by Chumash Indians until the late 1800s. The park serves as a gateway from Sunset Boulevard to Topanga State Park.

Status: The conservancy purchased the land from the Los Angeles Unified School District for $840,000 in 1982.

5) FRYMAN CANYON

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Size: 59 acres.

Location: Studio City, just of north of Mulholland Drive and west of Laurel Canyon.

Features: Starting point of the Betty B. Dearing mountain trail, which connects Fryman, Coldwater Canyon and Wilacre parks. A the park contains a stream, and groves of sycamore, live oak and ash.

Status: the conservancy bought the property in 1987 for $8.7 million from Fred Sahadi. Transferred to National Park Service in 1991.

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