jULY 8, 2022 BY aLYSSA rOLEN

California Rangeland Trust’s landowner partners demonstrate the importance of protecting the state’s working landscapes in their words and actions every day. Through their decisions to voluntarily conserve their ranches, they are helping preserve the best of the Golden State for future generations. For that, the Rangeland Trust could not be more grateful. So, to honor and celebrate the landowner partners who represent the history, hard work, integrity, and resilient spirit behind the organization’s success, the Rangeland Trust hosted the inaugural Landowner Appreciation Dinner on Tuesday, June 21st in Rancho Murieta, CA.

Sponsored by California Outdoor Properties and held in conjunction with the California Cattlemen’s Association’s Mid-Year Meeting, the event welcomed nearly 80 landowner partners and friends to the Murieta Inn and Spa. Upon arrival, guests mingled over glasses of “trailblazers”— the Rangeland Trust’s whiskey-based signature drink aptly dubbed as a tribute to the incredible landowners and supporters who continue to blaze trails in conservation— and feasted on an exquisite spread of meats and cheeses that was almost too beautiful to eat.

Sponsored by California Outdoor Properties, the Landowner Appreciation Dinner welcomed nearly 80 landowner partners and friends.

After catching up with one another during the cocktail hour, guests headed inside the hotel ballroom for dinner. Rangeland Trust Chairman, Andy Mills, kicked off the evening as emcee by welcoming friends and introducing the ranchers in attendance who partnered with the Rangeland Trust to conserve their properties.  

Rangeland Trust Chairman, Andy Mills, served as the emcee for the evening.

“Look around you and see that you are not alone in the commitment you’ve made,” Andy passionately stated. “You are part of a community, one that is growing because more people want to join you and be part of this movement to stand up for private working lands and ensure they and the people who steward them are here for the long haul. You are inspiring others, and not just people in the ranching community.”

Following introductions, Rangeland Trust Director and ranching partner, Clayton Koopmann led the invocation. Then, guests enjoyed a mouthwatering dinner of beef short ribs and potatoes. As stories of ranch stewardship and heritage were shared across the tables, the mutual sentiment and passion for the western way of life and deep desire to preserve it was palpable.

When the program resumed, Andy asked guests to join him in a moment of silence to remember and honor two incredible ranching partners who both passed away late last year—Jerry Russell of the Sagehorn-Russell Ranch and Don Tompkins of the TS Ranch. He emotionally stated, “Each of these ranchers had a deep conservation ethic and true passion for the land; they are greatly missed.”

Next, Andy recapped the history and formation of the Rangeland Trust. He proudly announced that over its 24-year span, the organization has helped more than 80 ranching families voluntarily conserve over 365,000 acres of pristine rangeland. While this is an impressive number, Andy was quick to note that it still has more work to do with over 95 families representing over 230,000 acres of rangeland awaiting funding for conservation through the organization.

The dinner served as a special celebration for the landowner partners who represent the history, hard work, integrity, and resilient spirit behind the Rangeland Trust’s success.

Rangeland Trust CEO, Michael Delbar, was unfortunately ill and unable to attend the evening’s festivities, so in his absence, Andy invited the Rangeland Trust staff management team to talk about current happenings and initiatives.

Conservation Director, Jackie Flatt, reported that in 2021, five ranches totaling more than 21,000 acres were conserved through funding from government grants, mitigation partnerships, and private sources. Now looking at 2022, Jackie anticipates the closing of an impressive 15 conservation projects thanks to the nearly $20 million secured in 2021 by the conservation staff through competitive grant submissions.

On the private fundraising front, Shannon Foucault, Development Director, enthusiastically reported that support from private donors for conservation projects is growing. In 2018, over 200 donors rallied together to conserve the 300-acre Rock Front Ranch in Santa Barbara County, which marked the first Rangeland Trust project to be funded entirely by contributions from the community. Then, in 2020, amid the pandemic, success was repeated on the Bloom Ranch in Tuolumne County. Now, the Rangeland Trust is seeking private support to close the funding gap to conserve the Spanish Ranch in Santa Barbara County. With each of these opportunities to engage donors, the Rangeland Trust is leveraging the passion of Californians who care about working lands conservation, while helping to build a future for greater civic engagement in this vital cause.

Shannon also explained how the Rangeland Trust is focusing on building a local presence in communities throughout the state, recalling that during the uncertain times of the pandemic some of the organization’s strongest financial support came from regions where the organization had a strong local presence. Shannon stated, “These lands are part of the fabric of your local communities. The work we are doing may be statewide, but the lands being conserved are in your backyard, and the people we are working to help are your neighbors.”

Next, Shannon passed the microphone to Communications Director, Alyssa Rolen, to discuss the work the Rangeland Trust is doing on the policy front and through its storytelling efforts. In 2019, as part of the organization’s strategic plan, Alyssa recounted how the Rangeland Trust set out to change the way Californian’s think about and value working lands and the people who steward them. To achieve this goal, the organization commissioned an ecosystem services study to determine the value of what Californians gain from private rangelands. UC Berkeley scientists determined that ranches conserved through the Rangeland Trust provide $1.44 billion in environmental services annually and that Rangeland Trust conservation easements return nearly $3.5 for every dollar invested. With this data, staff are utilizing this research to demonstrate to policy makers why rangeland conservation is a smart investment.

To illustrate this, Alyssa shared that a recent tour of the Spring Valley Ranch in Williams, California, hosted by Bob Slobe and Kim Mueller, provided an excellent opportunity to educate political leaders, including California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) Secretary Wade Crowfoot and California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Secretary Karen Ross, about the importance of keeping working lands intact and viable. Since the tour, CNRA leadership has informed the Rangeland Trust that $250 million is being allocated to conservation programs through the Wildlife Conservation Board over the next two years— a huge win for working lands conservation!

The Rangeland Trust is also focusing on telling the stories of its ranching partners through the blog, newsletter, podcast, and across social media. “Your stories are the Rangeland Trust’s greatest capital,” said Alyssa. “Several of you here tonight have shared your stories with us, and let me tell you, it is making all the difference in being able to communicate the importance of keeping agricultural lands available and viable. With your help, our message is being heard loud and clear, so thank you for your willingness to share your stories.”

Earlier this spring, the Rangeland Trust released a new short film as a way to showcase the important work the ranching community does for the good of the state. Following the staff management team’s presentations, the lights were dimmed, and the room grew quiet while the film, From the Ground Up: Healing Our Planet, Healing Ourselves, played.

After the video presentation, the 2022 conservation awards were presented. The Conservation Impact Award recognizes individuals who have excelled in environmental protection and made significant contributions to the advancement of conservation. Ceci Dale-Cesmat was announced as this year’s winner. Ceci had a longstanding career with the Natural Resource Conservation Service where she served as the State Rangeland Management Specialist and took a pragmatic approach to helping ranchers develop management plans that worked for them and their operations.

Ceci Dale-Cesmat was awarded the 2022 Conservation Impact Award.

“I have worked over four decades with many land trusts, but primarily with [the Rangeland Trust] helping them protect working ranches from development,” Ceci humbly stated. “I love the rangelands of California and my passion for protecting these open spaces, wildlife habitats, waterways and working lands made it never seem like work”

The Conservationist of the Year Award recognizes achievement in volunteer conservation by a private landowner. The 2022 Conservationist of the Year award was presented to the Merrie and the late Don Tompkins. In 2020, after two decades of patiently waiting for funding to be secured for the conservation easement, the Tompkins worked with the Rangeland Trust to conserve their beloved TS Ranch in Guinda, CA. Rather than receiving the total easement value, a large portion of the value was donated by the Tompkins to ensure the ranch’s continuity after their passing.

Merrie and the late Don Tompkins were awarded the 2022 Conservationist of the Year Award.

After honoring the conservation award winners, Clayton Koopmann returned to the stage to close out the program by reciting a few of his original cowboy poetry works. Through a series of beautifully articulated words strung together with a dash of humor, Clayton perfectly summed up the ranching community’s grit, innovation, and commitment to care for the land and livestock despite daily struggles and challenges. Hanging onto every word, a strong sense of pride and gratitude for California’s ranching culture overwhelmed the crowd. It is because of that same sense of pride, commitment to environmental stewardship, and love for the land our ranching partners demonstrate, that we tip our hats to the landowner partners that inspire and give us all hope for the future.