Sonoma Land Trust leader Ralph Benson leaving

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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.

Strategic preservation

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.”

He also pointed to Sonoma County residents’ support for conservation, particularly through the passage of a sales tax that funds the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

Building partnerships

Many allies in conservation said Benson brought a special ability to build partnerships between land management agencies and find donors to support big purchases. Caryl Hart, who as director of county Regional Parks has worked closely with Benson on preserving land, said the outgoing nonprofit director easily recruits support for his efforts.

“People immediately feel they can trust him,” she said.

Former North Bay Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who was in office during much of Benson’s time at the land trust, agreed. Getting landowners to part with their properties can be a sensitive undertaking, she said.

“He had a real art for bringing people together, for seeing what was in their best interest without them feeling like they were losing something,” she said.

Henry Alden, vice president of Gualala Redwoods, the timber company that sold the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands to Sonoma Land Trust in 2009, said Benson and Amy Chesnut, the group’s acquisitions director, approached the $36 million sale in a “professional, calm, and friendly manner” that kept the deal alive over four years, through “rough spots” that included disagreements over money and other details of the sale.

“Not just anybody could have pulled it off,” he said. “The deal could have fallen apart with the wrong personalities.”

Benson fell in love with the environment at an early age and became interested in conservation during the 1960s. But he did not have a radical streak and was not inclined to take a strident or confrontational approach to conservation, saying he tends to be “compromising by nature.”

But, he said, some of his environmental heroes were people who did draw a line, actively protesting coastal developments or the building of dams in the southwest. Benson said he respected that approach, too.

“Someone has to say ‘no,’” he said. “But then, you have to get on with it and make something happen.”

Shifting focus

The budding environmental movement of the 1960s led Benson to focus on land use and conservation law when he pursued his law degree at UC Berkeley. His first job after that was as deputy county counsel for Orange County, where he worked with the planning commission during a period of rapid development.

“It was professionally interesting,” he said. But, he ended up quitting in protest of what he found to be an overly cozy relationship between developers and politicians.

“The way they funded political campaigns was not to my liking,” he said.

Then, he joined a large development company, Avco Community Developers, which he said focused on building in a more environmentally friendly way.

“It was like a graduate education in land development and sales,” he said.

He applied that knowledge when, in 1979, he became general counsel for the Trust for Public Land. The organization, founded in 1972 in San Francisco, was in transition, aspiring to grow from a regional nonprofit with about 25 employees into a national organization.

Benson helped it do so as he rose through the ranks, becoming executive vice president and chief operating officer. When he stepped down in 2003, the Trust for Public Land had 450 employees and had conserved acreage across the country from the Columbia River Gorge in the Pacific Northwest to the Chattahoochee River in the southeast.

Benson left with the idea of working on conservation projects abroad. He was preparing to fly to Cuba when he got a call from a recruiter asking if he’d be interested in taking the helm at Sonoma Land Trust.

“If it had been any other county, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he said.

Bonding with a place

Benson was born in New Jersey but moved with his family to Burlingame when he was about 10. He spent considerable time near Cazadero at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Royaneh, which his father directed. There, he helped care for horses and lead trail rides amid the towering redwoods of Austin Creek.

“I was that age when you bond with a place,” he said. “I connected up here with the redwoods and the creeks.”

Since then, Benson has maintained a soft spot for the county. When he retires, he’ll leave behind what has become his weekday home at Glen Oaks Ranch, where he has grown accustomed to taking daily walks near Stuart Creek and among ancient oak trees. He plans to move permanently into his long-time Berkeley home and travel frequently to see grandchildren in Colorado and Texas. But he won’t sever his ties to the area.

“This is a big part of my life,” he said. “My heart is in Sonoma County.”

Benson said he looks back at his time at the land trust with few regrets, though he can’t help but look around the county and see land he wishes they’d been able to preserve. That includes parcels of ranch land in the San Pablo Bay area that a developer was able to purchase before the land trust.

“I wish we could do more; there’s always more to do,” he said.

He recalled something that Sylvia McLaughlin, founder of Save the Bay, said recently at her 98th birthday party: That the San Francisco Bay she’d worked so hard to preserve and restore is never fully saved — it always needs to be saved.

“She said each generation needs to pick it up and carry it on. It’s the same with the Land Trust,” he said. “I guess that’s a hope I have, that the work gets carried on.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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