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State's Coastal Conservancy runs low on cash after local deals

Visitors to Red Hill Ranch near Jenner in 2011.

PD FILE, 2011
Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 29, 2013 at 10:44 a.m.

A little-known state agency that has poured $68 million into Sonoma County conservation projects is running low on cash and planning to scale back its mission of protecting and enhancing vast forests and coastal lands.

Down to its last $150 million, the State Coastal Conservancy has spent most of a nearly $1 billion pot of bond funds approved by California voters and is preparing to get by with no new bond measures for the next 10 years.

The conservancy, which has helped purchase about 40,000 acres in Sonoma County, is no longer likely to help swing big deals like the $24.5 million Preservation Ranch purchase it supported with a $10 million grant earlier this month.

Doug Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney who heads the conservancy's seven-member board, was partly kidding when he told Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo at the April 18 meeting: "We don't expect to see you back too soon."

But in reality, the conservancy -- a partner in more than 150 Sonoma County conservation projects since 1988 -- has no choice but to pull back the pursestrings.

At its current rate of spending, the agency would exhaust its remaining funds in five years, according to an October budget memo to board members.

"Sonoma County just got a big bite of everything we have left," Bosco said in an interview.

Future grants will be no more than $1 million to $2 million at most, he said, noting that only half of the remaining $150 million can be spent at the board's discretion.

Bosco, who was appointed to the conservancy board in 2003, is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments which owns The Press Democrat.

Sonoma County ranks seventh in funding totals among the 20 coastal and San Francisco Bay counties in the conservancy's jurisdiction.

The 150 local projects include acquisition of coastal ranches and lands on the summit of Sonoma Mountain and in the Mayacamas Mountains near Santa Rosa, facilities at Laguna de Santa Rosa near Sebastopol and at Occidental's Salmon Creek School, fisheries improvements on Austin Creek near Duncans Mills and water quality work in the Estero Americano watershed.

In all, the agency has doled out more than $1 billion in grants contributing to the protection of more than 189,000 acres, building more than 240 miles of trails and improving more than 18,400 acres of coastal habitat.

Matching funds for those projects -- from other state sources as well as local agencies and nonprofit organizations -- total more than $2.5 billion, including nearly $215 million for Sonoma County projects.

"It's an extraordinary agency," said Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust. "In my view, they are government at its best."

The land trust, a private, nonprofit organization, has protected more than 25,000 acres in and around Sonoma County, in most cases with financial assistance from the conservancy.

Major joint efforts by the two include:

Acquisition of the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands near the coastal town of Jenner for $36 million, including $8 million from the conservancy.

An $18 million restoration project for the Sears Point wetlands along San Pablo Bay, with $3.5 million from the conservancy.

Purchase of the 910-acre Red Hill property on the coast for $2.37 million, including $1 million from the conservancy.

The land trust is also contributing $1 million, through a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, to the Preservation Ranch deal.

Most conservation land acquisitions come from "an assemblage of capital," Benson said, including private foundations, nonprofit organizations and public agencies like the conservancy and Sonoma County's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

The district, funded by a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax, is expected to pitch $4 million into the Preservation Ranch acquisition.

Without the conservancy's support, Benson said the land trust "will lose a lot of opportunities" to protect valuable property.

For example, he pointed to the rugged hills of northwest Sonoma County surrounding the 19,652-acre Preservation Ranch, tabbed for a controversial 1,769-acre forest-to-vineyard development that prompted the conservancy and open space district to contribute to the pending purchase.

Without further conservation deals, much of the surrounding land could be developed into private estates over the next 10 to 20 years, Benson said.

At the same time, the conservancy is eyeing the purchase of additional forest lands for their revenue potential from both carbon offset and timber sales.

The 24,000-acre Garcia River Forest in Mendocino County, acquired in 2004 in part by a conservancy grant, is expected to yield $1 million in carbon credit sales in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Carbon credit sales from Preservation Ranch, a young redwood and fir forest clear-cut in the recent past, could reap $750,000 starting in fiscal year 2017-18, according to the conservancy's 10-year funding plan.

Ownership of a third parcel, the Gualala River Forest, gives The Conservation Fund -- a Virginia-based private group that partners with the conservancy -- control of a contiguous 58,000-acre swath of forest straddling the Sonoma-Mendocino line.

Sam Schuchat, the conservancy's executive director, said the agency's dwindling pool of bond funds obliges it to consider the investment value of its land acquisitions.

But there's a biological value to preserving forests, as well, Schuchat said, matching the agency's commitment to addressing climate change.

Large expanses of coastal forest, with ridges and valleys creating varied microclimates, afford habitat for numerous animal species, he said. Lack of fences on protected land creates wildlife migration corridors, as well.

Sonoma County fits into a regional picture of "protecting as much as we can," Schuchat said, adding that the question is "where will the money come from?"

The conservancy has run primarily on the proceeds from four bond measures approved by voters between 2000 and 2006, totaling nearly $1 billion and with about 15 percent of that remaining.

An $11 billion state water bond measure is currently scheduled for the November, 2014 ballot, presumably with $200 million earmarked for the conservancy, Schuchat said.

But the bond measure, already postponed twice, is likely to become entangled in Sacramento politics, and Schuchat said he is no longer counting on it for financial relief.

Without a renewed source of money, the conservancy will cut its staff and ultimately shift from doling out large grants to providing "technical assistance" to other conservation agencies, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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