People envision the day-to-day work of a land conservationist as being out in the field, taking in the views, basking in the sun. This idea makes Wendy Eliot laugh. Most of her 20 years as Conservation Director at the Sonoma Land Trust were less adventurous but markedly fulfilling.
“The reality of it is pretty much my whole career I sat in meetings or at my desk with this giant pile of papers, staring into a computer. So, there is nothing very glorified about it.” Eliot has protected more than 18,000 acres of land in and around Sonoma County from behind her renowned desk, but numbers don’t tell her whole story.
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In the late ’90s, she accepted a job as the land acquisition manager at a small organization, Sonoma Land Trust, at a time when its collection of conservation easements was spread across the county more opportunistically than strategically. “I think what catapulted the Land Trust into finding our way, finding our home, was the work in the Baylands, trying to acquire some of the key properties down there so that we could then restore them.” For Eliot, thinking about the region’s ecosystem holistically meant that buying property was not enough; long-term investment and stewarding the land became the seeds for change.
Protecting the shores of San Pablo Bay also helps buffer the effects of sea level rise and create habitat for endangered species, and it moved the organization to adopt a wildlife and biodiversity program. That focus spurred the Land Trust to acquire a 22-acre property in the Sonoma Valley, a key regional corridor for wildlife that extends from Marin into Lake and Napa counties.
Securing land does not come without disagreements and plenty of opinions. Building relationships and understanding shared goals were at the forefront of Eliot’s work. “I got to meet folks, from ranchers whose ranches had been in their family for over 100 years to folks who maybe just showed up last year in the county . . . each of them had a story that I got to hear.”
One highlight was working with the Roche family to acquire their ranch land, doubling Tolay Lake Regional Park’s size. Another was forging partnerships and navigating complex negotiations to realize a greenway that connects downtown Santa Rosa to regional and state parks. Eliot loves the puzzle work of figuring out how the pieces can all fit. She is not easily deterred.
Eliot is allegedly retired, at least on a full-time basis, with the Land Trust. The bigger vision keeps her motivated: “Leave things better than you found them and offer ways for people to connect with nature, because I know that’s what compels me.”