He was a lanky cattleman, widely criticized in 1994 for allegedly trying to use his wealth to manipulate the public into relinquishing scenic Lafferty Ranch in exchange for his 380-acre Moon Ranch, but admired for his environmental activism and generous land contributions to nature conservancies.

And on Sunday, Peter Pfendler, 63, died at his Petaluma home after a two-year bout with lymphoma cancer.

?Peter possessed a towering intellect. He was much larger than Petaluma. People knew him from the land situation, but his presence throughout the United States, especially in the environmental movement, eclipsed anything else that was going on locally,? said consultant and former City Council member Brian Sobel.

?I remember Peter as an all-around great guy ? I can?t say enough good about him,? said City Council member Mike O?Brien. ?I was lucky to know him as a friend, and was flattered that he considered me a friend.

?One thing about him that most people don?t know is that he did a lot for the community, but did it quietly and anonymously. He just did it.?

Pfendler?s brother, David Pfendler, a doctor in McMinnville, Ore., also praised his integrity.

?Peter was a very genuine, caring person, although he often hid it. He had absolute integrity ? during his whole life, anything he told anyone was absolutely accurate,? he said.

Peter Pfendler was born in Lafayette, Ind., and later graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. He received an MBA from UCLA in 1966, and then served for five years as an Air Force pilot, flying 139 combat missions in Vietnam. He received 16 combat medals, including a Distinguished Flying Cross, and was honorably discharged in 1970.

He then returned to the United States, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1973. The following year, he founded Polaris Aircraft Leasing Corp., which became the world?s largest commercial aircraft leasing company at the time, with airliners leased to 25 commercial airlines. He sold Polaris to the General Electric Credit Corp. in 1989.

In 1984, he moved to a cattle ranch on Sonoma Mountain, east of Petaluma, and devoted the rest of his life to wildlife conservation. He also was an ardent fly fisherman and hunter, and served on the board of directors of the National Academy of Sciences, California Nature Conservancy and Peregrine Fund.

He continued to oppose efforts by the city to open the 270-acre Lafferty Ranch to the public as a park. Pfendler?s ranch borders the city-owned property.

?Peter gave hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of land to nature conservation groups and similar organizations,? said David Pfendler, adding that he also funded a large portion of Casa Grande?s United Anglers program.

He is survived by his wife, Kimberly Pfendler, and their son, Nicholas Peter Pfendler.

(Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com)