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Chief of Recreation Area Pulling Up Roots : Santa Monicas: Departing Supt. David Gackenbach expanded pristine public lands but leaves much unfinished business.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During his five years as superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, David Gackenbach has practiced the delicate business of buying up valuable urban real estate to ensure that it remains pristine.

Now, as he readies to leave his post to manage a string of private resorts, Gackenbach counts as his legacy the 8,000 acres he has helped preserve in the Simi Hills and Santa Monica Mountains since 1989.

“I would say I am most proud of being able to acquire 60% more land than we had before I arrived,” said Gackenbach, a Thousand Oaks resident. “This is land that is crucial both for the public and for the preservation of corridors that are so important to the wildlife in this area.”

The National Park Service confirmed last week that the 51-year-old Gackenbach, a low-key but persistent deal maker, would retire in mid-February after 21 years as a federal parks official.

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Publicly commenting on that decision for the first time, Gackenbach said he is eager to start a new career in business even though he leaves unfinished some of the recreation area’s most important projects.

Those include the acquisition of Soka University land near Calabasas, completion of the Backbone Trail for hikers in the Santa Monica Mountains and resolution of legal disputes surrounding the Ahmanson Ranch deal.

“There are many loose ends, but I think that would be true whenever I chose to step down,” he said.

A federal plan to cut the Park Service’s payroll by enticing veteran employees to retire was also attractive.

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“This just seemed like a good time because the offer was there, and I feel I’m young enough to try something new and exciting and challenging,” he said. “The new job will be something to keep my mind fresh and alert.”

Gackenbach will head an Arizona company that owns visitor centers, hotels and restaurants around the country, he said. He refused to name the company due to an agreement with the firm that allows it to make that announcement next month.

Gackenbach said he will return to familiar ground by moving to the concession industry. He headed concession management for the National Park Service before his 1989 appointment to manage the nation’s holdings in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Since taking over the 21,000-acre National Recreation Area, he has worked with a state agency, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, to prod developers into selling giant swaths of land. And he has tenaciously lobbied the federal government to make the deals, even when such transactions were becoming increasingly rare.

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“He has facilitated all of the transactions we’ve seen in the past five years,” said Rorie Skei, who oversees parks from the Simi Hills to Pasadena for the conservancy.

“He’s been extremely aggressive.”

The most expansive acquisition Gackenbach helped engineer was the 2,300-acre Jordan Ranch for $16.7 million in 1993. He has also been instrumental in the conservancy’s purchase of 640-acre Broome Ranch near Thousand Oaks.

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And he has fought for lengthening the Backbone Trail, which curls along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from Topanga State Park to Point Mugu State Park. Gackenbach would like to see the path further expanded so it connects to state and national trail systems.

Though many environmentalists laud his ability to acquire land, some have denounced his willingness to cut deals with developers.

Gackenbach said he has been willing to bargain only when it works to the public’s advantage.

“Every acquisition we made involved tough decisions,” he said. “The reality is that sometimes a compromise is the only way we are able to obtain the land.”

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