Michael and Tricia Berns make $1-million donation to Laguna Canyon Foundation

The Laguna Canyon Foundation headquarters in Laguna Canyon.
The Laguna Canyon Foundation headquarters in Laguna Canyon. Longtime Laguna Beach residents Michael and Tricia Berns recently made a significant donation to the foundation.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Longtime Laguna Beach residents Michael and Tricia Berns have always enjoyed the outdoors.

The couple describes themselves as scuba divers, wind surfers, sailors and mountain bikers, and in addition, they have an interest in environmental conservation.

Their philanthropy has been centered around environmental education, and the Berns struck again earlier this month when they made a $1-million donation to the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

The gift will be used to make improvements to and maintain the landscape around the Laguna Canyon Foundation headquarters, serving as a wilderness center, and for the community, as a place of both education and recreation.

About half of the donation will be turned into a maintenance fund for the parcel, which is known to locals as the Dewitt Property.

The Laguna Canyon Foundation’s stated mission is to preserve the 22,000-acre South Coast Wilderness. Hallie Jones, the organization’s executive director, said that the foundation does so through stewardship, habitat restoration, education, trail work and public programs.

“Laguna Canyon Foundation is thrilled to be partnering with Michael and Tricia Berns on the creation of the Berns Canyon Preserve,” Jones said. “It is absolutely a wonderful opportunity for our community and our open space.”

Terremoto Landscape was chosen by the Laguna Canyon Foundation as the landscape architectural partner for the project.

Tricia Berns said that the couple’s philanthropy is inspired by similar community efforts, including the creation of the Nix Nature Center.

“We’re beyond fortunate to live in Laguna Beach, a beautiful place [with] beautiful people, and in the course of the time that we spend in the environment, we see more and more encroachment by the civilized world,” she said. “These spaces are such small jewels and so critical to our mental health and to the well-being of the planet, which is good for everyone’s health, mental and physical.”

The Laguna Canyon Foundation headquarters in Laguna Canyon.
The donation will be used to make improvements to and maintain the landscape around the Laguna Canyon Foundation headquarters,
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A previous donation resulted in the creation of the Michael and Tricia Berns Environmental Study Loop at Crystal Cove State Park. Michael Berns said the discussion and efforts that went into that project took longer to produce the desired results.

Once it came to fruition, he said that they wanted to remain anonymous, but they changed their minds. He added that California State Parks personnel lobbied them to include their names, hoping that it would inspire others to come forward and engage in similar efforts.

Michael Berns also said that the environmental study loop is about a half mile long, easy for youngsters to engage in and complete, and it is handicap accessible.

What has shown the Berns family the significance of their support for environmental causes is the letters that they would receive from students. Michael Berns said that elementary students would write to them about new ambitions to become scientists, forest rangers, naturalists and environmentalists.

“It made us feel like we were really making a difference for these kids,” Michael Berns said.

The Berns family indicated that in making the sizable donation, they wanted to be heavily involved in decisions regarding the use of the funds. Fortunately, they found a fit for Laguna Beach and with the Laguna Canyon Foundation’s mission.

“We have to obviously all support the mission,” Tricia Berns said. “It’s not one person’s idea, what they want. It’s what suits the mission and what’s good for everyone and what helps the environment, and so it was just so great. It takes a village.”

The Laguna Canyon Foundation requested a naming rights agreement to have a sign installed at the entrance to the property on which its headquarters is located, naming it the Michael and Tricia Berns Canyon Preserve. The Laguna Beach City Council gave unanimous approval.

“This is an opportunity for us to educate residents of Laguna on why we have this open space and the history of acquiring it and what it could have been and how lucky we are,” Councilwoman Toni Iseman said after thanking the Berns family at the March 9 meeting. “It’s turned into kind of a 24 Hour Fitness all over the county, I think, being used and abused by people who don’t recognize the fragile nature of our open space.

“I think it’s time to take a look at that and respect it, not just residents because we do respect it, but make the visitors respectful also.”

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