California Conservation Groups Purchase Private Land for Unique Preserve

Published January 8, 2013

Two conservation groups struck a deal with private property owners to preserve 554 acres of land in Sonoma County, California. Analysts say the deal, which creates the Bohemia Ecological Preserve, could serve as a model for future conservation efforts utilizing free market principles instead of government dictates.

The two conservation groups, Sonoma Land Trust and LandPaths, purchased conservation easements for much of the land while buying full ownership rights for other portions of the property. As part of the deal, the conservation groups will allow the prior property owners, Ted and Phyllis Swindells, to live on the land. 

The conservation groups paid $1.45 million to preserve the land.

Conservation and Public Access

“The Bohemia Ranch Ecological Preserve provides a good example of two organizations with complementary skill sets and missions working together to create something great,” said Ralph Benson, executive director of Sonoma Land Trust. “Sonoma Land Trust used its transactional land acquisition skills and resources to provide LandPaths with an extraordinary place to engage the community and bring people out on the land.” 

The land in the ecological preserve is well-known among Northern California outdoor enthusiasts for a year-round 30-foot waterfall and beautiful natural resources. The preserve sports a variety of habitats, including forestlands, riparian woodlands, iconic redwoods, and many rare plants. The land is also home to many northern spotted owls and steelhead trout.   

LandPaths Executive Director Craig Anderson says Ted Swindells offered the Swindells’ land rights for conservation “because he cared deeply about the property and its intrinsic values—the vast majority of those being its wild and scenic nature with plants endemic to our region—and he felt that both those values and the chance for local people to enjoy the property would best be served by offering it to the nonprofit.” 

The conservation groups plan several activities geared toward allowing the public access to the preserve. 

“Yes, public access is part of the plan, and we believe that its provision provides people access to land near where they live. This has a host of benefits,” said Anderson. 

“Plans include providing programs for local children through school visits and overnight camping with nature study,” he added. 

Call for Volunteers

LandPaths offers various volunteer opportunities to assist in the stewardship of the Bohemia Ranch Ecological Preserve and its other properties. The conservation group is already putting together a volunteer ranger corps to manage the Bohemia Ranch preserve.

“These individuals are already on the property weekly, monitoring roads and trails, removing downed trees from trail routes, caring for the preserve’s infrastructure—cabins, roads, gates, trails—and generally keeping a presence on the 554-acre preserve,” said Anderson. 

Private Park Benefits

Anderson formerly worked as a rescue aide within the National Park Service. He has been with LandPaths for 15 years. 

“I can state with some conviction that [some] of the primary differences between a privately run preserve or park and one operated by a state or the federal government [are] that ideas can be implemented quickly and, often, at lower cost owing to [a] nonprofit agency’s nimbleness; the wishes of a donating landowner or large donor are easier to enact owing to ‘relationship’ being paramount before policy; and the nonprofit is oftentimes more able to respond to the particular set of circumstances and criteria for a local park because it is by definition locally based, supported and influenced by the community,” said Anderson.

Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr agrees that private sector management is superior to government takeovers.

“When lands are preserved by private environmental and conservation groups rather than government agencies, we get a better match between conservation goals and ultimate outcomes,” he said. 

“Instead of environmental activists saying anything and everything should be set aside and rendered off-limits to private ownership, they can and must prioritize their resources to preserve the lands they consider most fitting of conservation,” Lehr explained. “Then, if they would like to set aside additional lands for conservation, they can make their case for more donations and use their funds accordingly.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.