By Conservancy Science Director Mike White, PhD
For me the past eight years have raced by, which is not surprising when things are as busy and exciting as they have been at the Conservancy. At the same time, I feel like I have spent so much time trying to get to know and understand the Tejon Ranch, it’s as if I have grown up here. And in many ways, I have—the Ranch and this job have changed my life and it is hard to imagine leaving. But now that I am beginning another chapter of my life, it is important for me to share with you what this place, its conservation, and its people mean to me.
I began exploring conservation issues at Tejon Ranch in 2002 while working for the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI), a science-based conservation nonprofit. Because Tejon Ranch has long been considered a statewide conservation priority, CBI received private foundation funding to assess the conservation values of the Ranch and surrounding region. In late 2006, the Tejon Ranch Company and its development partners approached several major environmental organizations about developing a conservation and development master plan for the Ranch. This environmental coalition invited me and other conservation biologists and planners to advise them during an intense 18-month process of high-stakes negotiations—an experience I will never forget.
The first six months of the negotiations were as much about building trust as building a master plan. Both sides were extremely guarded with each other, but our goals clarified and coalesced over time. In the spring of 2008, our discussions culminated with a multi-day, lock-down meeting at a hotel in Newport Beach, with representatives from all organizations present for the duration. This was a focused, emotion-packed meeting, but our discussions were always collegial, and, ultimately, led to a successful framework for an agreement. The Ranch-wide Agreement signed in June 2008 was unprecedented and hailed nationally as a unique model of cooperative regional conservation planning. This was a completely private conservation agreement—without any local, state, or federal government agencies; no permits or approvals were involved. The Agreement provided permanent conservation of 240,000 acres (90%) of the Ranch and created a nonprofit conservation organization (the Tejon Ranch Conservancy) to conduct research, oversee stewardship, and provide public access to the conserved lands.
A novel part of the Ranch Wide Agreement, or RWA, is that the Tejon Ranch remains a working Ranch—and is subject to conservation management practices (Best Management Practices or BMPs)—all of which had to be worked out over the next five years between the Conservancy and the Tejon Ranch Company. That is to say, the landowner will continue economic activities such as grazing and hunting in conserved lands, but these activities are subject to standards developed by the Conservancy to protect and enhance conservation values. Thus, the RWA outlines a framework for science-based adaptive management to be implemented on the largest piece of private property in the state. To me, the Tejon Conservation Agreement is incredibly important not just because it protects such a rich and important landscape, but also because of its cooperative, science-based approach to conservation.
"this opportunity to experience the Ranch has itself shaped my life."
Of course, the real work was yet to come on this largely unexplored property—developing a cooperative management strategy for the protected lands themselves. The Agreement created, at least on paper, the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, to “protect, enhance, and restore” the conservation values of these conserved lands. Where to start? Remember that in the summer of 2008 the Conservancy was just an idea. So, a Board of Directors was formed, paperwork forming the organization was prepared and filed, and, while still with CBI, I began working for the fledgling, unstaffed Conservancy as a contractor. The Board then hired the Conservancy’s first Executive Director, Tom Maloney, in early 2009. Tom asked me to serve as the Conservancy’s first Conservation Science Director in August 2009.
The thought of being part of the Conservancy led to many sleepless nights and long discussions with my wife about our future. I had a great job, working out of our home-office in Encinitas, and I wasn’t looking to move from my bubble by the beach. But I had written a lot of conservation and management plans in my career that someone else would implement (or put on a shelf), and here was my opportunity to lead the development and implementation of management practices, on a large and amazing piece of land at that! As Conservation Science Director, my job would be to study the resources of the Ranch, get to know the landscape, and formulate and implement management recommendations for it. Like, OMG am I dreaming?
"I saw my first mountain lion in the wild at Tejon and now have seen eight."
So, when Tom asked me to join the Conservancy, it was impossible for me to turn down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The rest, as they say, is history. This is a good time to say thanks to my wife, Jerre Stallcup, for joining me on this adventure. We had a beautiful place up on the mountain with good views, incredible birds and other wildlife, and a serenity that few people get to experience. We enjoyed our time there and feel grateful for the opportunity.
Fast forward, and now, with a remarkably talented staff, the Conservancy has laid the foundation for monitoring and managing this amazing landscape. I am proud to have been part of this groundwork, building from scratch a research program leading to a Ranch-wide Management Plan that became the basis for the work of a new organization. Thank you to all these staff, and our Board of Directors, advisors, researchers, funders, and volunteers, just a few of whom I mention below.
• All my dedicated and hardworking compañeros at the Conservancy over the years—Tom, Jen, Chris, Lauren, Phoebe, Scot, Laura, Ben, Ellery, Bob, Tim, Susan, Amy, Marissa, Kayla, Mark, and Ashley. You have enriched my experiences at the Ranch and I’ll never forget you.
• The Resource Groups, attorneys from Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberger, and the rest of the Agreement negotiating team—I am proud to have been there with you.
• The Conservancy Board of Directors—it has been an honor to work with some of the most influential and respected conservationists in California. I appreciate the opportunity, assistance, and direction that you have provided me over the years.
• Our Science Advisory Panel of world-renowned experts—I am so honored that you took the time to help me and the Conservancy over the years. I have appreciated your advice, knowledge, and friendship—thank you!
• Funders, partners and collaborators—you have helped increase our knowledge of the Tehachapi region, improving our understanding and ability to better manage Tejon Ranch.
• Our volunteers, docents, and citizen scientists—it has been rewarding and fun to watch you all get as excited about the Ranch as we do! My deepest gratitude to our volunteers and docents; you make such a big difference and your passion is inspiring.
• The Tejon Ranch staff that has welcomed and worked in good faith with me over the years.
As part of our work, we commissioned or facilitated over 50 research projects, which allowed me the opportunity to interact with many interesting scientists, including dozens of students and early career scientists. There has been so much good research done at Tejon, but a few projects are especially worth noting. First and foremost is our long-standing partnership with Dr. Jamie Bartolome’s Range Ecology Lab at UC Berkeley. Jamie’s insights, and the PhD research of his former student, Dr. Sheri Spiegal, really changed the way I look at grasslands and how I think about managing them. This research was extended into riparian habitats by another of Jamie’s doctoral students, Dr. Felix Ratcliff, and likewise extended my thinking about integrating grassland and riparian conservation management. Thanks to everyone from the Lab who helped at the Ranch over the years.
We have had numerous group Master’s projects from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB that have improved our understanding of various ecological facets of the Ranch. More importantly, these projects have afforded me the opportunity to interact with our next generation of conservationists.
The amazing botanical work of Nick Jensen, Neal Kramer, and dozens of other botanists has radically increased our understanding of the rich and complex flora of Tejon Ranch and its biological significance statewide. They have documented an incredible diversity of plants, including many rare and endemic species, despite the fact that it was during several years of the worst drought in our state’s recent history.
Frank Davis PhD and colleagues have been doing some of the most broadly relevant research on the Ranch, looking at how small-scale physical variations on the landscape influence “microclimates” and the ability of trees we care about, like oaks and pines, to survive in different parts of the landscape and under changing climates. This research has the potential to change the way we think about global climate change, the resiliency of natural communities, and how to manage them well beyond the borders of Tejon. Frank is also a Conservancy Board member, including Chair of the Stewardship Committee, and a colleague, friend, and mentor. He has been an influential “thought leader” for the Conservancy and a source of knowledge and support to me over the years. Thank you, Frank.
"I have been awed by wildflower displays that I didn’t know were possible."
As I said, this opportunity to experience the Ranch has itself shaped my life. I saw my first mountain lion in the wild at Tejon and now have seen eight. I also saw my first condor here, my first sighting was actually a group of 16 roosting birds in one tree, and I have been so close that I have heard the sound of the wind through their wings as they soared over my head. I have been awed by wildflower displays that I didn’t know were possible. I discovered salamanders under talus on the side of a 6,000-foot ridge! I have stood under some of the biggest oak trees in California. I have seen so many golden eagles that I’ve come to think of them as trash birds (just kidding!). Where do you get to see a hatch of baby horned lizards? Getting to see some of the rarest plants on earth as if they were common? Counting 50 Bullock’s orioles in one tree? Finding marine sedimentary rocks on top of the 6,800-foot Blue Ridge? Annually welcoming incredible, diverse migrations of birds? Spending countless hours by myself in one of the most amazing places on earth without seeing a soul or hearing any vehicles. Oh yes, I will miss Tejon!
"My greatest hope for the future is that the relationship between the Conservancy and Ranch develops into a strong and productive partnership that will fully achieve the potential of the Agreement."
But I don’t consider this a goodbye, rather an “until next time,” as I intend to stay involved with the Conservancy in some capacity—because I strongly believe in what we are trying to accomplish. It also feels like I’m leaving a part of me on the Ranch (do I need a permit for that?), so I’ll be back. My deepest thanks to everyone for making my time at the Conservancy so memorable. I hope that you continue to support the work of the Conservancy and I will see you again on the Ranch.