“The last perfect place” is what many are calling the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, the nearly 25,000-acre property that the billionaire tech moguls saved with a $165-million donation to The Nature Conservancy in December 2017.

The land, which extends roughly from Vandenberg Air Force Base to Hollister Ranch and surrounds Jalama Beach County Park – was formerly known as the Bixby Ranch, when it was ruled by cattle for nearly a century, and the Cojo-Jalama Ranches, when developers resurrected the original Spanish names while waiting in the wings with grand plans. No matter what you call it, the nearly untouched property – about the size of the entire City of Santa Barbara – hugs California’s most prominent corner at Point Conception, where the lands and seas of the north meet those of the south.

Because of that unique geographic convergence, the preserve is an ecologist’s wonderland of biodiversity. Across its sprawling collection of oak woodlands, pine forests, coastal prairies, wetlands, and beaches live 14 threatened or endangered species, such as Lompoc yerba santa and the western snowy plover, and 54 “special status” species, including recently discovered populations of the tricoloured blackbird, rarely seen along the coast.

More important than the numbers, though, is the entire equation. The preserve represents the last intact ecosystem for the Southern California coast, where even our protected areas are more focused on human recreation than ecosystem conservation. “This place is different,” is what ecologists say upon exploring the preserve. That’s according to The Nature Conservancy’s Michael Bell, who is the preserve’s director and played an integral role in saving the property, working toward that goal since the early 2000s.

“This is a place where mountain lions and bears still hunt and forage on the beach. They use their full natural habit, from the nearshore ocean to the beaches to the ridges,” explained Bell last week. “It’s an extraordinary system, and the observation and perspective of ecologists tends to be that it is the last of its kind. It is the last and best representation of a wild Southern California ecosystem.”

But it’s also drool-inducing for evolutionary scientists, as it represents a hotspot where evolution happened faster than elsewhere; environmental educators, who are already bringing classrooms out to explore the pristine nature; archaeologists, for the untold messages still buried by the untouched soils; and the Chumash people, who see the property as a chance to finally honor their sacred lands in the right way.

There is also a tremendous opportunity for science and research to be conducted in groundbreaking ways at the Dangermond Preserve. “This place belongs to science,” is what Jack Dangermond likes to say. So The Nature Conservancy and UCSB are teaming with Esri – the Dangermonds’ digital mapping company and the source of their wealth – on a groundbreaking partnership that will mandate an open data system for all who study there.

Rather than results getting lost by never being published – as the majority of scientific research projects are never published, according to Bell – or being culled to fit a paper’s argument, all of the information discovered by researchers will be available for everyone else to use from anywhere. “You’re aiming for a digital twin of the preserve,” said Bell.

The land, of course, is far from perfect. The property came with a number of restoration projects mandated by the California Coastal Commission – thanks to the previous owner’s unscrupulous and unpermitted activities – including the restoration of 200 acres of oak woodland, removal of 300 acres of ice plant, transfer of 36 acres to the county at Jalama Beach, and numerous other projects, all paperwork- and handiwork-heavy. Then there are bridge and culvert replacements, management of the cattle herds, security concerns, and … well, the work is just beginning.

But Bell dreams of a day, five years from now, when the preserve is fully functioning. A school group from Lompoc will come out for a weekend of backpacking, stay in the historic barn on Friday, and then hike a richly designed demonstration trail to the ridge camp on Saturday. By Sunday, they’ll be walking back along the beach, perhaps even checking out the Point Conception lighthouse thanks to partnerships with other organisations. And the entire time, they will be interacting with real scientists conducting research and proud volunteers working on restoration.

In so doing, the Dangermond Preserve won’t only be preserving a mostly lost past or capturing science for today, but also inspiring a more diverse class of scientists for the long tomorrow. Said Bell, referring to a scientific legend and one of Jack Dangermond’s close friends, “The next E.O. Wilson might come out of Lompoc.”

This article first appeared in Santa Barbara Independent on 24 April, 2019 by Matt Kettman & Keith Hamm. Photo by: Matthew Davis, The Nature Conservancy.

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