Sonoma Land Trust leader Ralph Benson leaving
Ralph Benson took a sip of coffee on a recent drizzly morning and pointed out the windows of the spare old ranch house, where he lives near Glen Ellen, to some of the land he’s spent the past decade trying to shield from development.
Benson, 72, has led the Sonoma Land Trust in conserving about 33,000 acres around the county since 2003. He plans to retire from the job after his replacement is hired, likely in January.
For now, he lives during the week at the land trust’s 234-acre Glen Oak Ranch preserve. From there, he can look across Highway 12 and see several small, oak-dotted parcels that the organization recently purchased as part of an effort to piece together a contiguous, protected wildlife corridor through Sonoma Valley. And just out of sight is what he sees as one of the organization’s biggest ongoing projects: the oak woodlands and redwood forests of the state-owned Sonoma Developmental Center. Land trust staff members have been working with other agencies and political leaders to craft a conservation plan they hope the state will consider as an alternative to selling the site to developers as it decides the future of the embattled facility.
“That’s the biggest game in town,” Benson said, describing the nearly 1,000-acre property as a critical puzzle piece in the effort to preserve and connect natural areas in the valley. Other areas he hopes his successor can help the land trust preserve include redwood forests in northern Sonoma County and ranch land near the shoreline of San Pablo Bay.
“We need to think large by connecting landscapes and creating big expanses of open land,” he said.
Such strategic, large-scale efforts to connect small patches of ranchland and open space into a larger whole have defined Benson’s efforts since he joined the Sonoma Land Trust in 2003, conservationists say.
“Ralph really brought the organization up from a small, boutiquey land trust to something that really has a national reputation,” said Neal Fishman, who worked with Benson over the years in his former capacity as chief deputy director of the California Coastal Conservancy, the state agency that purchases, protects and works to provide access to shoreline properties. Fishman, a Petaluma resident, is now a board member at the land trust.
The organization has existed since 1976, but under Benson’s watch over the past 12 years, the amount of land it has protected more than tripled, to 48,000 acres. Recent acquisitions include the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands, 6,000 acres on the shore of San Pablo Bay, and Pole Mountain, the highest peak on the Sonoma Coast.
The organization also saw a growth in financial support: Its budget increased from $1 million to $5 million and, as a result, the staff doubled from 11 to 24. By working with outside agencies like the Coastal Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Land Trust secured more than $80 million to be spent on conservation in the county.
But numbers alone don’t tell the full story of Benson’s contributions, local environmentalists say. As the former vice president of the Trust for Public Land, a large national conservation outfit, Benson brought a big-picture perspective that has allowed the land trust to strategically preserve some of the most ecologically important landscapes in the county rather than simply buying small parcels as they became available.
“He understands why it’s important to identify the most important pieces of land and look carefully at how to aggregate smaller parcels into larger segments,” said county Supervisor Susan Gorin, who has worked closely with Benson on projects in her jurisdiction. She pointed to his organization’s work in preserving and restoring wetlands in San Pablo Bay, at the southern tip of Sonoma County.
“What they’ve been able to do in creating the wetlands restoration project around the baylands is the probably the most important climate adaptation strategy in the county and places us far ahead of other counties as far as preparing for sea water rise,” Gorin said.
Jenn Fox is executive director of the Bay Area Open Space Council, which coordinates the efforts of land management agencies around the region to conserve up to 2 million acres. She said the land trust under Benson’s watch has been “not only a Bay Area but a national leader” in working to conserve acreage for watershed protection and restoration.
Benson, for his part, was quick to give credit to his staff for many of the accomplishments.
“I’m acutely aware it’s not me,” he said. “I feel privileged and lucky to have been part of these great teams.”