Incoming director of Sonoma Land Trust has long felt a connection to Sonoma County

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Eamon O’Byrne, the Dublin-born conservationist who will take over as executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust in September, felt uncannily at home on his first visit to the county.

That was a quarter century ago. Exploring Sonoma County’s rugged coast, he was reminded of the cliffs and crags of Connemara on the wild west coast of Ireland, where he had worked as a guide on trekking and mountaineering adventures after graduating in 1990 from University College in Dublin.

O’Byrne recalled “an immediate connection” to the Sonoma Coast: to its “spectacular cliffs, the breathtaking ocean habitats and the fog and coolness, the lushness and greenness of it.”

In an indirect way, his new job with the Sonoma Land Trust feels like a bit of a homecoming, even if he’s not sure where he and his wife, Stephanie Linder, are going to live. Linder is the executive director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society.

The land trust’s office is in Santa Rosa. While the couple has yet to begin house hunting, O’Byrne hopes to find a place within easy commuting distance. “Hopefully, biking or walking distance; that would be ideal,” he said.

Since 1976, Sonoma Land Trust has protected more than 51,000 acres in and around Sonoma County. The nonprofit also holds some 45 protective easements. “We also have about 18 properties in our land preserve system,” said the current executive director, Dave Koehler, who is retiring.

O’Byrne has spent the past six years directing the California Islands Program for The Nature Conservancy. For work restoring the population of the endangered Island fox — the fastest recovery of an endangered mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act — he and his team were honored in 2015 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Following their 1994 wedding in New Paltz, New York, O’Byrne and Linder embarked on a honeymoon that took them to a series of National Parks. It was a formative journey for the groom, who found the parks — and the civic ideals that allow for their existence — jaw-dropping.

“That a country would have a set of values” protecting such wide swaths of nature, “I found that incredibly inspiring,” he said.

It was not long after that journey that he decided to pursue a career in conservation.

Asked about the challenges facing him in his new job, he mentioned the importance of public access programs, and of “thinking holistically about how nature and people cannot just coexist, but mutually benefit one another.”

When that coexistence has been unlawfully disrupted, the Sonoma Land Trust has no qualms about seeking legal redress. In May, the land trust successfully sued a couple who’d uprooted a 180-year-old heritage oak on a protected easement on the north flank of Sonoma Mountain. The couple was ordered to pay $586,000 in damages.

“Eamon is keenly aware of the vital role land protection plays in the rapidly changing climate we have,” said Koehler, who described his successor as “very engaging, a delight to be around,” and an “exciting” leader ideally suited to take the land trust into the future.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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