Our Laguna: Retired foundation president honored

Twenty years have passed since Michael Pinto Michael Pinto established the Laguna Canyon Foundation as a major force in environmental activism and served for two decades as its president — but everything comes to an end, sometime.

For Pinto, sometime is now. He has stepped aside, not down, as president of the foundation.

Pinto will continue to serve the foundation at chairman emeritus.

“It is time for new leadership,” Pinto said. “Most of my time is spent now on my ranch in San Diego County, and I am not able to donate the time required to the foundation.


“The board is wonderful, and I felt I could pass the baton to great leaders.”

Pinto will be honored at a public ceremony at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Nix Nature Center in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, an understandable choice because he was instrumental in acquiring the land for the park and the construction of the center.

“Hopefully we all have a chance in our lives to do something that does make a difference,” said Mary Fegraus, founding executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. “The years as executive director with Michael as president of the foundation were such times.

“We didn’t have a road map to follow but had to stick to our instincts. Thankfully those instincts led to success.


“Michael always had his focus on the big picture, and I was always ready to follow his lead. I learned a great deal about nonprofits from Michael, also about listening, a skill that has proven over and over to lead to success.

“It was a pleasure to work with Michael, an experience I will always cherish.”

Pinto’s leadership is credited with establishing the non-political framework for the unique partnership between the community and environmental activists, civic and municipal leaders, private property owners and developers — not to mention their gifts of $100,000 and more — which gave the foundation financial credibility.

“I was always interested in the environment, but the foundation was my first big involvement,” Pinto said.

Pinto took a leadership role in the state bond measure, which eventually led to the successful State Park Bond in 2000 that guaranteed $12.5 million to support the coastal system of wilderness parks and preserves.

Pinto led the effort to partner with the county on the $3.4-million Nix Nature Center for which the foundation contributed $650,000 for construction and another $300,000 for the interpretive program.

He also encouraged the innovative and award-winning signage in the park, including orientation and monument signs at the staging areas, Ridge Park access and Mary’s Trail, named for Fegraus.

Although Pinto has relinquished the reins at the foundation, he has not abandoned the battle for open-space preservation.


He will continue to serve as a board member of the Orange County Great Park Corporation, the Volcan Mountain Preserve Foundation and the Laguna Beach Community Foundation.

As a member of the Great Park board, Pinto is focused on the wildlife corridor.

“That corridor is absolutely essential to the goals of the foundation, to preserve, protect and enhance park lands,” Pinto said.

Besides his enthusiasm for open-space preservation, Pinto brought to the foundation a solid understanding of nonprofit culture, experience in establishing new nonprofit organizations and a broad education.

Pinto earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Cal State Long Beach in 1963.

He completed his master’s degree in political philosophy at UCLA in 1964 and earned his secondary teaching credential there.

Pinto completed his doctorate in Integral Studies with a research concentration in learning and change in human systems at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

His dissertation focused on nonprofit organizational development and philanthropy.


He was still working at his company, Sound Music Sales and Platterpuss Records, when he moved to Laguna in 1977 with his son and daughter. He retired in 1981.

However, his entrepreneurial skills benefited the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

His strong financial background played a substantial role in the success of the foundation, as a fundraising organization and later in a stewardship role, Fegraus said.

But many people think it was his personal characteristics that made it work.

“When he commits to a cause, he has the energy to carry out that commitment, and he appreciates people who are willing to get involved,” Fegraus said. “He is a good listener and a passionate speaker.”

Pinto’s promotion of local efforts to preserve open space was recognized in 1992 when the Teddy Roosevelt National Conservation Award was presented to the foundation in Washington, D.C.

And that was before he really got going.

He took a leadership role in passing the State Park Bond in 2000 that guaranteed $12.5 million to support the south coast wilderness system of parks and preserves.

Pinto was a leader in the efforts to make governmental agencies aware of the local preservation campaign, which culminated in the $45-million acquisition of four of the five Laguna Laurel parcels from the Irvine Co. in 1993.

The fifth and final parcel was added in 2001, when Pinto collaborated with the company on its unprecedented announcement of an 11,000-acre open space dedication.

Pinto led the effort to partner with the county on the $3.4-million Nix Nature Center, to which the foundation contributed $650,000 for construction and another $300,000 for the interpretive program.

His efforts have helped bring in $5 million from more than 8,000 private contributors and $13.9 million in state grants for land acquisition and interpretive exhibit funding.

After the acquisition of a substantial amount of land, Pinto expanded the foundation’s mission to include preservation, protection and enhancement of the 20,000-acre regional open space system of parks and preserves.

Under his guidance the foundation established a planned giving program with today more than $2.5 million pledged in estate gifts to benefit Laguna Canyon Foundation.

He encouraged the funding and development of an educational program for children in underserved schools.

More than 200 active volunteers oversee guided hikes, restoration projects and other activities in Laguna Coast, and Aliso and Wood canyons wilderness parks.

Pinto’s shoes will be hard to fill, but he is optimistic about the future of the foundation and the park.

“With the partnership of founding board members [Laguna Greenbelt Inc. President] Elisabeth Brown and [Laguna Canyon Conservancy President] Carolyn Wood and the commitment of founding Executive Director Mary Fegraus, her successors and dedicated staff members and volunteers, the little nonprofit we started almost 20 years ago has grown and thrived alongside the parkland it helped preserve,” Pinto said.

“I look forward to a new decade dedicated to positive change and a continued tradition of keeping it wild.”

Former foundation Treasurer Don Vivrette considers it an honor to succeed Pinto as president.

“I am honored to follow in Michael’s footsteps,” Vivrette said. “I look forward to continuing the foundation’s mission into our 20th anniversary year and beyond.”

The ceremony in honor of Pinto is part of a celebration from noon to 4 p.m Saturday.

Speakers will include 5th District Supervisor Pat Bates, Vivrette, county Parks Director Mark Denny, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park Senior Ranger Barbara Norton, and representatives from Laguna Beach, Irvine, Laguna Hills, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Woods.

Former 5th District Supervisor Tom Wilson will preside as master of ceremonies.

The celebration will include refreshments, a wildflower and plant identification table, and wildflower hikes along the short, easy nature loop of Mary’s Trail.

Limited parking will be available at the Nix Nature Center.

A free shuttle from the James Dilley Preserve will run from noon to 4 p.m.

For more information, visit, e-mail or call (949) 497-8324.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail