Meet Bay Nature’s 2015 Local Heroes

November 18, 2014

Every year, Bay Nature Institute selects three people whose extraordinary work on behalf of conservation and environmental education in the Bay Area warrants special recognition and appreciation.

Following are the three Bay Nature “Local Heroes” for 2015. They were chosen by Bay Nature Institute board and staff from more than four dozen nominations submitted by members of the conservation community. They will be honored at Bay Nature’s annual awards dinner on Sunday, March 22.

>> For more details on the event itself, and to purchase tickets, visit baynature15.eventbrite.com.

Sonoma Land Trust Executive Director Ralph Benson. Photo: Susan Ives
Conservation Action award winner Ralph Benson. Photo: Susan Ives

I. Conservation Action Award:
Ralph Benson, Executive Director, Sonoma Land Trust
(Recognizes an individual who has made significant contributions to the conservation of the natural landscapes, wildlife, and/or flora of the San Francisco Bay Area, through advocacy, legal action, acquisition, and/or stewardship.)

When Ralph Benson retires in early 2015 after serving 12 years as Executive Director of the Sonoma Land Trust, he will leave behind an organization whose budget has grown five-fold under his leadership (from $1 million to $5 million); whose staff and membership has doubled (from 11 to 22, and from 1,200 to 2,500, respectively); and whose portfolio of protected property has more than tripled (from 15,000 to 48,000 acres). In those 12 years, Ralph has transformed a small, local organization into one of the major players in the Bay Area’s conservation world. He’s done this by attracting more than $80 million in outside funding for the acquisition of beautiful Sonoma landscapes, from the baylands in the south, to creeks and woodlands in the central core, to redwood forests and coastal bluffs along the northern coast. Ralph has also established Sonoma Land Trust as a respected steward of the land it protects, investing significant resources into restoring and managing these precious landscapes, and providing multiple opportunities for public access to them.

Ralph’s remarkable success at the Land Trust is the capstone on a long career in land conservation. A decade after completing his law degree at Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley), Ralph was hired as general counsel for the Trust for Public Land. Over the course of the next 24 years, Ralph went on to become the organization’s Chief Operating Officer, overseeing its development into one of the nation’s leading conservation organizations. During his time at TPL, Ralph learned how to put together the complex transactions needed to protect our significant natural landscapes. Those who have worked with Ralph credit his success to his ability to articulate the importance of working on a landscape scale and to build harmonious rather than competitive relationships with all stakeholders.

Julia Clothier, Education Center Director, Point Reyes National Seashore Association. Photo: PRNSA
Environmental Education award winner Julia Clothier. Photo: PRNSA

II. Environmental Education Award:
Julia Clothier, Education Center Director, Point Reyes National Seashore Association
(Recognizes the achievements of an individual who has made significant contributions to public understanding and awareness of the natural history and ecology of the San Francisco Bay Area, through research, teaching, field trips, journalism, and/or other media.)

If Julia Clothier had her way, every child would grow up with the opportunity to experience nature on a regular basis, and so she has made it her mission in life to promote access to, and engagement with, the natural world for young people. Now, she pursues this mission as the Director of the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center in Point Reyes National Seashore, where she oversees environmental and outdoor education programs that reach 2,200 youth ever year. This includes 40 overnight programs and numerous half-day field trips during the school year, a nine-week summer camp, and an annual natural history “intensive” course for educators and youth program leaders. In 2009 Julia created the Young Stewards Youth Scholarship Fund, which has raised over $500,000 to make these field-based education and wilderness recreation programs available to underserved youth.

Julia grew up sailing and bodysurfing in Southern California and went on to earn degrees in Botany and Natural History from Sonoma State University while writing, illustrating, and publishing an ethnobotanical field guide to common plants on Sonoma Mountain. She then worked for 11 years as director of field education and land stewardship programs at the university’s 400-acre Fairfield Osborn Preserve on Sonoma Mountain. In 2008, Julia was hired by the Point Reyes National Seashore Association to develop and maximize the park’s potential as an ideal setting for environmental education for children from around the Bay Area and Northern California. Though most of her time is now spent in administration, fundraising, and curriculum development, Julia gets to be in the field with kids during the nine-week summer camp, and as the lead teacher for the yearly teacher training course.

III. Youth Engagement Award:
Javier Ochoa Reyes,
Project Coordinator, Groundwork Richmond

(Recognizes an individual, 25 years old or younger, who is making significant contributions in the fields of natural history, stewardship of the natural world, conservation action, and/or environmental education.)

Bay Nature Local Hero Javier Ochoa Reyes. Photo: JO Reyes
Youth Engagement award winner Javier Ochoa Reyes. Photo: JO Reyes

Javier Ochoa Reyes is a binational Mexican-American who was born in San Pablo, CA to parents who had immigrated from Mexico several years earlier. When he was five years old, the family returned to their small hometown village in Mexico. In 2008, when he turned 16, Javier decided to return to California on his own in search of a better education and greater opportunities. As a student at Richmond High, Javier signed up to be tutored as part of the Straight Talk on Prison (S.T.O.P.) program and eventually became a tutor in the program himself. Through his work with S.T.O.P., Javier came into contact with several local environmental initiatives. One was the Sunshine Organics community gardening project, a public-private partnership that helps youth in Richmond learn how to grow healthy food. Another was Groundwork Richmond, which recruits and trains teens to work on projects benefitting the community, such as the Richmond Greenway, a 3.5 mile long trail that is bringing nature back into the heart of this East Bay city. For two years, Javier brought teens from S.T.O.P. to work on the Greenway. Impressed by his leadership, Groundwork Richmond hired this charismatic and dedicated young man to be its program coordinator. Now Javier is responsible for partnering with a range of community youth groups to restore two segments of the Greenway in east Richmond, clearing away brush and trash, planting trees, and creating miniparks.

At the same time, Javier is a student at Contra Costa College working toward his dream of becoming a civil engineer. His goal is to transfer to a four-year college, get a degree, and then return to help rebuild a vibrant city through building green infrastructure. In November 2014, Javier will receive Groundwork Richmond’s “Rusty Spike” award, along with outgoing Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, for invaluable contributions to the city and the community.

The Bay Nature Institute is a Berkeley-based nonprofit media organization dedicated to exploring, celebrating, and protecting the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area, in print, online, in the field, on the air.

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