Bay Nature magazineSpring 2015

Bay Nature Local Heroes

First Person: Conservation Action Award Winner Ralph Benson

April 1, 2015

Ralph Benson recently retired as the executive director of Sonoma Land Trust, a position he held for the last dozen years, working to preserve important natural and agricultural landscapes in one of California’s most ecologically diverse counties. Before that, Benson spent nearly a quarter of a century working at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), where he helped the national conservation organization preserve such iconic places as the neighborhood around the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and the woods around Walden Pond. An Ohio transplant by way of New Jersey, Benson arrived in the Bay Area at the age of 10 when his dad was hired to be the director of the San Francisco Boy Scouts’ Camp Royaneh, along Austin Creek in Cazadero in western Sonoma, where Ralph spent his summers.

Brendan Buhler: What kinds of experiences in nature did you have as a kid?

Ralph Benson: I grew up on the Peninsula in the ’50s when you could wander around and there were creeks and vacant lots and things like that—places to play. I think I just liked to goof around. My favorite thing was the horses we had at the camp. People didn’t worry as much about liability issues in those days. My job was taking care of the horses and leading trail rides and wagon rides. My teenage years were spent hiking and riding around western Sonoma County on horses and I think that’s where I connected with the outdoors.

BB: How and when did you get involved in environmental work?

RB: I gravitated toward land use law when I was in law school at UC Berkeley in the late ’60s. There was a lot going on. There was Earth Day, and the environmental movement was just getting going. I was drawn to that. Save the Bay was just getting under way, and I remember following that when I was in law school. My first job after law school was working in the Orange County counsel’s office on land use for the county planning commission, when it was the fastest developing county in the state.

BB: What did you start out doing at the Trust for Public Land?

RB: I was general counsel. Back then, I was the only lawyer in the organization. We started growing and opening offices around the country. I think by the time I left we had over 20 lawyers, 25 lawyers. I migrated into management.

BB: What were some big projects you were involved in at TPL?

RB: It was a national organization, so we bought some land around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. And there was an urban land program. TPL was one of the first organizations to focus on community gardens and urban land, making the case that there’s a continuum from the inner cities to the wilderness areas. Probably the most fun was working in Atlanta, in the neighborhood of Martin Luther King’s birth home. The King home had been preserved but the neighborhood was really falling apart. So TPL went in and we quietly bought a number of properties on Auburn Street and then subsequently gave them to the National Park Service. Now it’s one of the most visited national parks and a lot of that was tpl going in early and buying the land. I worked with a guy in our New York office on that.

One of the other things that I am proud of is the role that TPL played in the development of the land trust movement. Huey Johnson, who started tpl, was a real visionary. He hired a woman named Jennie Gerard to direct a program to help communities in the West start land trusts. malt, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, and the Sonoma Land Trust were assisted in the early days by TPL’s land trust program, as were the Napa Land Trust and many others.

BB: What’s special to you about Sonoma County?

RB: The landscape, the variety, the beauty. The redwoods, the ocean, the Bay breeze—the smell of it—and the Sonoma Valley. It’s also kind of magical that it’s part of this major metropolitan area. Everything’s here. Rich culture, natural beauty, the wine—what’s not to like? It’s a cliché, but we live in paradise. There’s also humane politics I mean, I like our politicians. You don’t find that everywhere.

BB: What are some of the major challenges trying to protect land in Sonoma?

RB: Funding is always at the top of the list. Land is expensive here. That’s why all the projects are collaborations and partnerships. It takes pulling the community together. But it’s a very congenial and collaborative county. Climate change is going to be the big challenge. It moves slowly but there’s no question that it’s happening.

BB: Is the land trust’s Baylands project an example of how to address that challenge?

RB: Yes. Our Sears Point project will bring back a thousand acres of marshes on the northern edge of San Pablo Bay and serve as a kind of buffer for sea level rise. We got most of the construction done this past year. Some remains, including the construction of several miles of the Bay Trail. Sometime later in 2015, we’ll be able to breach the outer levee and then gravity and nature will take their course and over 20 years the marsh will return… Something will eventually have to be done about Highway 37. It’s already underwater during certain high tides. The solution will probably be something like the Yolo Causeway for i-80 west of Sacramento. That way you can protect the wetlands too.

BB: What’s your favorite piece of land that you protected at the Sonoma Land Trust?

RB: No favorite. It’s like your children; you love them all. I like the variety. I’m always entranced when I’m at Sears Point. Also, I’ve been staying in Glen Ellen at the land trust’s Glen Oaks ranch. Walking through the oak woodlands is about as nice as it gets. We have these seasons. Out at the ranch, all summer it was so dry and so brown, and then we had these rains and it was like someone flipped a switch and everything turned green.

BB: Are there any areas of Sonoma that you’d highlight as critical to preserve in the future?

RB: The most important thing is to tie together large landscapes and to make the connections so there aren’t kind of isolated areas but instead broad swaths of protected land.

I think the urban growth boundaries are vital and therefore protecting the land at the edges and the margins is important. I think there’s a lot more room for development in Sonoma County, actually, if the urban areas can continue to urbanize. Petaluma is a good example; so is Santa Rosa. They can accommodate more, if people are willing to create more urban environments. That’s what it will take to protect the open spaces.

BB: How do you balance the goals of preservation, stewardship, and access to protected open space?

RB: There is a tension. I have a personal bias for public access but recognize there are real constraints. If people want working ranches and working forests, there are going to be some restrictions on access. It’s just something that has to be managed. When the land trust buys land we’re holding it in trust for the public. But then on the coast, you could buy some land, open it up to the public, and watch all the abalone get poached to extinction. So I don’t know. It’s complex.

BB: How do you convince people of the value of saving land?

RB: It doesn’t take much convincing around here. When Measure F, which reauthorized a sales tax for our Open Space District, was on the ballot some years ago it passed with a 76 percent  “yes” vote—that was for a tax! Land protection is really consistent with community values here. People, either they’ve been here and feel a connection to the landscape or they moved here because of it. The land is a real driver of the economy. Its beauty is part of what the wine industry is selling. It’s why people visit. It’s why people buy second homes here.

But our kids: How can they afford to live here? How do you afford to get into farming? … I don’t know. But we try and make sure kids have places to run around in.

BB: So what’s next for you?

RB: Beats me. What I’m doing now is clearing the decks. I don’t know what comes next. It seemed like a good time to pass the baton. Sonoma Land Trust is on a roll, we’ve got a lot of projects, we’re solvent and we’ve got a great staff. Hell, I’m 72. It’s time to try something new. I will see more of my kids and grandkids.

BB: What will you miss?

RB: I think I’ll miss my colleagues on a daily basis. We have a terrific team. But it’s been an office job. I think I’m going to be hiking a lot more.

About the Author

Brendan Buhler is a recovering arachnophobe and co-author of Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes (2015). He lives in Petaluma and is also a full-time amateur biologist studying the eating habits of toddlers. 

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Ralph Benson, Sonoma Land Trust