Group Saves Large Chunks of State

Times Staff Writer

Warning that growth continues to threaten California's vast open spaces, one of the West's largest philanthropic foundations announced that its ambitious five-year land preservation effort has conserved 342,000 acres in the state's broad midsection.

The conservation campaign by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation exceeded its original goal of sparing 250,000 acres from development along the Central Coast, Sierra Nevada and Central Valley.

But officials at the foundation said the effort, which leveraged $175 million in Packard funds into nearly $1 billion in private and public investment in land preservation, merely scratched the surface of needs. Some experts have estimated that the state would need to spend more than $12 billion to preserve 5.4 million acres of critical habitat in California.

"Our investment may sound large, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to California's land preservation needs," said Julie Packard, the foundation's vice chairwoman and daughter of its founders. "We need to keep going. Once land is converted over to development, there's no turning back."

Among the parcels protected is Coast Dairies, just north of Santa Cruz, one of the largest privately held coastal acreages on the Central Coast. In the Salinas Valley, foundation grants helped purchase easements on close to 1,000 acres of agricultural land around King City and Gonzales. Meanwhile, 13,000 acres in the scenic Sierra Valley north of Lake Tahoe was preserved as open space and will remain ranchland.

The accumulation of open space through the campaign will continue for a few more years as deals are wrapped up. The foundation expects to ultimately preserve more than 400,000 acres by 2006.

Since the late 1990s, 40,000 acres of California farmlands and ranchlands have been lost each year to development, according to a report issued by the foundation this week. That is an area 30 times bigger than the city of San Francisco. Though families are smaller, homes are bigger -- and farther from urban centers. Commute times have ballooned. Tax-generating suburban big-box stores and auto malls, meanwhile, have sprouted atop the landscape.

Given the rapid change, the burst of land preservation "comes at just the right time," said Kevin Starr, the state librarian and California historian. "We are just on the verge of this move toward 60 million people in the state by the year 2040. Many of these sites would be unobtainable in the foreseeable future."

Starr said the Packard land preservation push also shows a "profound maturity" for a state frequently castigated as wacky.

Labeled one of the most ambitious conservation campaigns in history when it kicked off in 1998, the Packard Foundation's effort rivals bequests by the Rockefeller family in the early 20th century that helped set aside and expand national parks.

The foundation's approach was to use local government officials, conservationists, scientists, lawyers and real estate experts to draw up a list of the most pressing targets for acquisition, then prioritize which should be pursued.

Tapping some of its $4.8 billion in assets, the foundation put up seed money to attract other private and public donations.

Though about 40% of the land was purchased outright, the bulk was secured through easements that require the owners to continue living and working the property while protecting the land from development.

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