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A new leader is about to take the reins at Sonoma County’s largest land conservation group.

Dave Koehler, who hails from Fresno, where he fought to protect the San Joaquin River, has been named executive director of Sonoma Land Trust, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit organization. He’s taking over for Ralph Benson, who retired last month after 12 years leading the group, which has protected about 48,000 acres around the county, including the scenic Jenner Headlands, San Pablo Bay tidelands and ranchland in the Mayacmas Mountains.

Koehler said he was drawn by the area’s diverse landscape and the 39-year-old land trust’s solid reputation.

“I can’t think of another place in California where you have all those major ecosystems coming together,” he said Monday in an phone interview. “Sonoma County (residents) are the stewards of something very special.”

Koehler has served for 25 years as the executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, which promotes protection and restoration of the state’s second longest river, running from the Sierra Nevada through the Central Valley.

In his new position, Koehler, 59, said he’d like to continue to look ways to form partnerships with other groups and landowners throughout the county and introduce more residents to the county’s open space.

“It’s a matter of amplifying and building on the success that Sonoma Land Trust has,” said Koehler, who starts the job on April 16.

According to the latest tax records available, Benson’s total compensation was $183,000, including pay and benefits.

Under Benson, the trust more than tripled the amount of land it has protected, both through outright purchases and conservation easements that keep property in private hands. It also has extensive forest, creek and marsh restoration projects underway throughout the county.

Recent high-profile acquisitions include the 238-acre property that takes in Pole Mountain, the highest point on the Sonoma Coast.

The group is also part of a coalition that recently bid on 30,000 acres of timberland spanning Sonoma and Mendocino counties at the mouth of the Gualala River. Gualala Redwoods Inc. put the land up for auction in the fall, with final offers due late last month.

Fred Reid, who sits on the land trust’s board and was part of the search for a new director, said Benson created great momentum at the group and that Koehler will continue to carry the organization forward.

“He’s deeply respected in his field,” Reid said about Koehler. “He accomplished a lot where he lived. He’s got great leadership skills, and he’s clearly very creative.”

Under his tenure, the San Joaquin trust was key in the protection of nearly 5,000 acres along the river, where Koehler spent his childhood fishing. He also helped establish the San Joaquin River Parkway, a 23-mile greenway of conservation lands, parks, trails and river access.

Koehler had graduated from the California State University at Fresno with a environmental biology degree and was working for a bank, rolling out their computer system when proposed developments were threatening the river in the 1980s. Fresno was expanding northward. Plans called for putting long stretches of the river into an artificial channel to make way for major proposed developments, he said.

“Thanks to the engagement of the community the San Joaquin River bottom remains an open space,” said Koehler, who was awarded the Partners in Conservation Award by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2011 for working collaboratively to protect the waterway.

“He clearly has the leadership and managerial strengths,” said Denny Van Ness, board chairman of Sonoma Land Trust.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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