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.