Ralph Benson has been a key figure in the California open space community for over four decades, wearing many hats during that time. Raised in the Bay Area, Ralph got his law degree from Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley) and then practiced land use law in Southern California before moving back north and into the nonprofit conservation world. He was an early staff member at Save the Bay, then served as General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer for the Trust for Public Land for 24 years, and has been Executive Director of the Sonoma Land Trust since 2003.
BN: How long have you lived in the Bay Area?
RB: My family moved to the Bay Area from New Jersey in 1952 when I was nine years old. I grew up on the Peninsula in Burlingame, but my father was an executive with the San Francisco Boy Scouts, so I spent all my summers growing-up and much of the year at the Scout camp in Cazadero in Sonoma County.
BN: What turned you on to nature here?
RB: It was probably the time I spent at Camp Royaneh in Cazadero, where I could ride horses and swim in Austin Creek; and then also living by the Bay watching the Peninsula develop. In the 1950s, even on the Peninsula, there were still plenty of vacant lots and close-to-home wild places where a kid could explore, catch frogs and take some risks.
BN:Tell us a bit about Sonoma Land Trust and the work you do there.
RB: We preserve what people love about Sonoma County – the scenic landscapes, productive farmland, natural areas and places to enjoy. We have protected most of the southern end of Sonoma County – the Baylands along Highway 37 at Sears Point where we are undertaking a 1,000-acre restoration of tidal wetlands. We bought the top of Sonoma Mountain adjacent to Jack London State Park, and we own a dozen preserves around the county, including several historic ranches. On the coast we purchased, own and manage the spectacular 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands.
A recent favorite of mine is Stuart Creek Run. There is a major concrete fish barrier on the three-acre property in Glen Ellen that blocks steelhead from reaching breeding habitat. We intend to remove the fish barrier in partnership with the Sonoma Ecology Center and create a small park.
We also hold 40 conservation easements over 6,000 acres of diverse properties which are monitored annually with our corps of 70 volunteer monitors. We connect people with the lands we protect through our On the Land Program of hikes and volunteer stewardship days.
BN: What’s one of the most pressing issues you are working on these days?
RB: The State’s financial catastrophe is increasingly affecting our work. California has a long tradition of funding land conservation, but bond funds are running dry, and are unlikely to be replenished any time soon. Not only is there a diminishing amount of capital for acquiring critical lands (which ironically are more available at this time because of the recession), but 70 state parks are slated for closure and the ones that are open are not being well maintained. Five of the parks slated for closure are in Sonoma County, where Sonoma Land Trust initiated a Parks Alliance to coordinate and provide a forum for the various groups willing to take responsibility for keeping the parks open. One way or another we will keep our parks open; but any solution is a band aid until the taxpayers are again willing to invest in a first class parks system along with all the other hallmarks of a compassionate and civil society.
BN: Is the Bay Area moving in the right direction on the State Parks issue?
RB: The Bay Area may be going in the right direction, but the rest of the state needs to follow. Sonoma County voters supported a quarter-cent sales tax for our Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and approved by a wide margin Proposition 21, the vehicle license fee to fund State Parks, but we need to bring the State of California along (The measure failed statewide.) The Bay Area loves open space and it shows. We have the most extraordinary, beautiful, and livable metropolitan area in the world. But California as a whole is in need of fixing.
BN: What’s your favorite park, hike, or place to go in nature in the Bay Area?
RB: I love the trails on our Glen Oaks Ranch in Glen Ellen. The historic ranch was a bequest to Sonoma Land Trust; and we have been working for some years now to build trails on the ranch that wind through the oaks above the vineyards.Hiking the Jenner Headlands property is another real treat with its views of the Russian River emptying into the Pacific and Goat Rock.
>> Visit SonomaLandTrust.org to learn more about this organization and how to get involved.