Finding Money for Local Conservation: Can a Battle for 17 Acres Be Won?

Buying undeveloped land in Los Angeles is a costly affair. And anyone living in these parts knows that competition is fierce, with buyers snatching up prime parcels as soon as they hit the market. So the odds would seem pretty heavily stacked against a local environmental group, Citizens for Los Angeles Wildlife (CLAW), which is trying to raise money for the purchase of a 17-acre mountain ridge of open space and habitat nestled in the highly coveted hillside community of Laurel Canyon that divides West Hollywood and the Eastern San Fernando Valley.   

We’ve written a lot about land purchases as a favored tactic of conservationists and environmentalists. After all, the best way to protect a parcel of land is to own that parcel of land. But rarely do we think of swaths of critical, endangered habitat located right smack in the middle of the second most populated city in the nation. 

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A group of Los Angeles residents are hoping to raise the $1.6 million asking price for the 17-acre piece of L.A.’s greenbelt to protect the land from future development and preserve the natural vegetation and wildlife living there. There has not been any permanent land protection of this size in Laurel Canyon and, if sold to developers, an unusual opportunity would be lost forever. According to experts, the land’s stand-alone ecological resources are significant. It forms the core of a 55-acre habitat hub that provides for wildlife movement between over half a dozen surrounding habitat areas. 

Although surrounded by homes, crossed with a power line, and abutted by easements, this 17-acre site is still in remarkably pristine condition, hosting stands of Coastal Oaks and native wildlife, including deer, coyotes, bobcats and raccoons.

Both sides of the ridge, which is capped with several hundred feet of relatively flat land, are quite steep providing natural protection for wildlife.

If successful, the organizers of the "Let’s Buy A Mountain" campaign will turn the land over to the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA), a local government agency that manages open land.

Despite its hyper-local focus, Let’s Buy A Mountain caught the eye of national environmental and wildlife conservation heavyweights including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the Urban Wildlands Group. It also has support from some local politicians and the Los Angeles Times. The question now is whether it can pull in support from foundations or major individual donors. 

That's always a big "if" in local conservation fights. Those national funders that do support conservation are often thinking big, looking to protect very large parcels of land. And while some regions have major foundations committed to preserving open spacelike the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in the Bay Area—many do not. To be sure, big philanthropic dollars flow to national groups that engage in local land conservation battles across the country, most notably the Nature Conservancy and the Open Space Institute, but these groups tend to gravitate toward battles involving lots of land and higher stakes. While emergency conservation funds seem to be more bountiful than ever these days, it's not clear how much of that money is deployed to more win smaller, more local conservation fights. 

Still, $1.6 million seems like a small price to pay for 17 acres of pristine nature in the heart of urban Los Angeles. And CLAW is hoping that this battle can be won even if deep-pocketed donors don't swoop into the rescue. From Richard Seireeni, co-founder of Let’s Buy A Mountain:

We are receiving love and support from citizens throughout Los Angeles and nationwide who have watched wildlife habitats disappear unceremoniously in their backyards, suburbs and urban areas and many of them have identified their own greenbelts worth saving. We hope this can be a model to create permanent green space, pocket parks, and wildlife corridors or refuges without waiting for government or environmental benefactors to do the right thing.

It's a nice vision, but how realistic is this model? I suppose the answer lies largely in the resources of the local community where natural areas are threatened. And in this case we're talking about one of the most affluent places in America—the hills of Los Angeles. 

So it's probably unsurprising that CLAW has already surpassed its first fundraising goal. In more good news, the current land owners want to give this project a shot. They’ve agreed to an 18-month escrow to allow the organizations time to raise the money.

Under the terms of their agreement, the first installment of $48,000 was due on Nov. 2, 2015. On March 1, 2016, a second installment of $48,000 is due. The groups then have until April 3, 2017 to pay the entire $1.6 million. This is more than generous. And it gives the leaders of Let’s Buy a Mountain time to roll out a full fundraising plan with different components, including crowdsourcing community funding and tapping corporate sponsors. Benefit concerts and other fundraising ideas are also under consideration. One possibility: naming rights for whoever gives big to save the mountain.

Hey, David Geffen, did you hear that?