Big changes are happening at the California Rangeland Trust. After twenty years of service, CEO Nita Vail will leave her position at the end of April, passing the reins to Michael Delbar, who has been with the Rangeland Trust for ten years and currently serves as its chief operating officer.
It is hard to picture the Rangeland Trust without Nita Vail. During the last twenty years she has led the Rangeland Trust from its humble beginnings, born from a group of ranchers seeking ways to hold onto the ranching way of life in California to one of the largest and most influential agricultural nonprofits in the state. From a staff of two, the organization now has fifteen individuals working to preserve California’s rangeland on every front— from providing funds to ranchers for conservation easements, to changing public policy, to engaging in innovative collaborations with all sectors of society.
Looking back at her personal journey, and that of the Rangeland Trust, it is evident that no better person could have helped found and lead the organization from its early years through maturity, becoming a major force in rangeland conservation throughout the state.
Nita’s involvement and history with the Rangeland Trust seems like a perfect act of destiny—as if her upbringing and life experiences were carefully orchestrated, all along guiding her towards the role of CEO. With a degree in Agricultural Business Management from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, an MBA from Santa Clara University, a five-year appointment by Governor Wilson as Assistant Secretary of Agricultural and Environmental Policy for the California Department of Food and Agriculture under Secretary Ann Veneman, and as a graduate of the California Agricultural Leadership Program, Nita was uniquely positioned to lead. But it was her upbringing on a multi-generational California family ranch that provided Nita with the passion and common sense to drive success.
Nita’s great-grandfather, the legendary cattleman Walter L. Vail, along with J.V. Vickers, purchased Santa Rosa Island in 1901 for their ranching operation. He saw the island as a perfect place to continue expansion of their California operations and secure additional grassland for winter range. Under Vail and Vickers’ ownership, the land and cattle business thrived, even with extended droughts and volatile cattle markets.
During an age where women were not naturally welcomed into business, Nita spent years at her father’s side learning about land stewardship and all aspects of a marine ranch operation that ran up to 8,000 head of yearlings in a wet year. She watched how her father successfully built long-term relationships based on integrity, his word and a handshake.
It is also where she learned first-hand the family heartbreak of losing an intergenerational ranch and the negative consequences of an environmental community that lacked science-based, accurate knowledge about the beneficial role of well-managed ranches in the environment. The 54,000-acre island remained in the Vail and Vickers families until the late Seventies when Congress created legislation to expand the Channel Islands National Park. Fearing almost certain condemnation, Vail & Vickers sold Santa Rosa Island to the government in 1986 and brokered a deal to allow them to stay on the island and continue their ranching operation for the next 25 years, until 2011. During the next decade, inaccurate information about endangered species that had been supported by ranch operations for decades resulted in the end of all livestock operations on the island. The last cattle drive occurred in 1998.
Nita’s ranch upbringing helped instill in her the core values of integrity in business and a love for the land. Looking back, it seems only natural that she would be at the forefront of helping to establish and grow the Rangeland Trust from the ground up. Nita stated: “I am profoundly aware of the rare gift I’ve been given in transforming that early, extensive, and painful knowledge about how to conduct land transactions into many joyful, positive conservation successes.”
In 1997, seeing the multitude of challenges facing California cattlemen and women, a group of forward-thinking ranchers from the California Cattlemen’s Association identified an inherent need to offer creative conservation solutions to the ranching community. They also were networking and learning from groups like the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association who had formed the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust five years earlier and the Malpai Borderlands Group in Arizona and New Mexico. The California Rangeland Trust was born from this creative ferment.
As a founding board member, Nita helped establish a clear vision for the new organization. The Trust sought to provide real tools, common vision, and collaborative opportunities. By enabling ranchers to band together, and working with ranchers individually, the Trust could help them conserve private ranches, monetize development and habitat values, and change public opinion about ranching. It would be an organization for ranchers, run by ranchers, saving rangelands for all Californians.
Shortly after its creation, the Rangeland Trust was fortunate to have some early wins. The first conservation easement was completed on the Touch the Earth Ranch in Calaveras County in 1998, which helped the organization establish itself amongst funders, supporters, and landowners. Then in 2001, right as the organization began to build significant momentum, the executive director at the time stepped down.
Nita’s visionary leadership helped transform the organization into the largest land trust in California. Nita understood the need to build bridges between environmental and ranching groups, especially after witnessing what had happened on Santa Rosa Island. She, along with the board of directors and staff, worked to create a broad base of philanthropic support and connect the organization to state and federal agency partners. She also made it a priority to educate people from all walks of life on the public benefits rangelands provide. Those connections allowed the Rangeland Trust to raise significant funds for rangeland conservation.
With Nita at the helm, the Rangeland Trust has completed nearly 90 conservation projects. One of the biggest and most challenging projects involved the landmark conservation agreement on the Hearst Ranch. In 2005, Nita and others from the Rangeland Trust, worked alongside the Hearst Corporation and the American Land Conservancy to complete the conservation project on the 80,000-acre ranch along California’s scenic Highway One. Steve Hearst led the Hearst Corporate team and had this to say about Nita:
The Rangeland Trust has certainly come a long way over the last twenty years. In 2001, the organization had $250 thousand in assets. Today, the organization has worked with more than 70 ranching families to conserve more than 340,000 acres of pristine rangeland throughout the state. It also boasts $32 million in assets, much of which is comprised of restricted endowments for its perpetual stewardship responsibilities on conserved ranches.
While Nita is proud of the Rangeland Trust’s work to date, she is most proud of the trust the organization has established within the ranching community.
At the end of April, Nita will be stepping down from her position at the Rangeland Trust. While this has not been an easy decision for Nita, she believes this to be an important and critical change for a strong organization like the Rangeland Trust to continue to grow and thrive.
With this decision, Nita is looking forward to spending more time with family and friends and getting horseback regularly. She also plans to apply her unique expertise acquired over the last twenty years to new endeavors assisting landowners with conservation and ranch real estate strategies and continuing to make a difference in the ranching industry. While she will no longer be managing the organization’s day-to-day operations, her impact and legacy will live on as a pillars within the organization.
While Nita will certainly be missed, the Rangeland Trust is fortunate to have once again found the perfect person to lead the organization forward. In May, Michael Delbar will assume his new role as CEO.
With a degree in agricultural business from California State University, Chico, twelve years of service on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, a two-year stint as executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau and as a graduate of the California Agricultural Leadership Program, Michael is well-poised for his new leadership role. And like Nita, Michael’s story about how he became involved with the Rangeland Trust seems like an act of fate.
Michael hails from a multi-generational ranching family in Mendocino and Lake Counties where they raise beef cattle, timber, and hay. His first experience with conservation easements came when a land-use decision was made in his home county which would have detrimental impacts on surrounding agricultural lands. To mitigate against these impacts, proponents advocated for a conservation easement. The problem was that at the time, no organization capable of holding an easement of this nature existed. Various groups had talked about forming a land trust, but they were not agricultural-friendly organizations. Fearing that these groups may not have the agricultural land stewards’ best interests in mind, Michael rallied other local ranchers to work on creating their own land trust.
Simultaneously, Michael put his hat in the ring and ran for a county supervisor seat in 1996. The agricultural community was underrepresented, and Michael felt the need to serve as a voice for the farmers and ranchers in his community. While the news of him winning the race was exciting, it also meant the time he would be able to devote to forming an agricultural land trust would be limited. Luckily, it was around this same time that the California Rangeland Trust was created. This offered a solution to the agricultural producers in Mendocino County, so there was no longer a pertinent need for Michael and his team to continue forming their own organization.
Fast forward 12 years after Michael had wrapped up his service on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. He heard about an opening for a new chief operating officer at the California Rangeland Trust, so he took a chance and called Nita. He joined the Rangeland Trust in 2010, and the rest is history. For Michael, his journey with the Rangeland Trust has come full circle. It began with a desire to preserve the land and natural resources in his home region. Now, he will have the opportunity to do this on a statewide level as he leads the California Rangeland Trust forward.
As for Nita, she could not be more thrilled with the announcement of her successor.
California Rangeland Trust’s dedication to a collaborative, science-based approach to ranch conservation has increased both general understanding and attracted new and important allies to the cause of protecting the state’s dwindling rangelands as they face a host of economic and population pressures. The Rangeland Trust is forever grateful to Nita Vail for her dedication and longstanding service to the ranchers and working landscapes of California and is excited for its continued success in service to its mission and continued growth under its new leadership.
Article first published in the April 2020 issue of the California Cattleman Magazine