Will This Huge Land Gift Inspire Other Tech Philanthropists?

photo:  Ken Wolter/shutterstock

photo:  Ken Wolter/shutterstock

The 24,000-plus acres of coastal land outside of Santa Barbara, known for years as Bixby Ranch, is a truly remarkable piece of land—once dubbed by the Los Angeles Times as “the last perfect place,” on par with Joshua Tree and Yosemite. 

What also made this mostly wild piece of land unique is that, up until recently, it was at risk of development for various uses at the will of its owners. Thanks to a $165 million gift to the Nature Conservancy from a wealthy Californian couple, the cherished property, while still in private hands, is now protected in perpetuity. 

Jack and Laura Dangermond have long been environmental philanthropists, although this is their first high-profile, publicly heralded gift. This was no accident. The Dangermonds have made it clear in interviews that the decision was motivated by a desire not only to save a precious part of the coast, but to inspire those who have amassed great wealth, particularly from the state’s tech industry, to follow their lead. 

As Jack Dangermond told The Atlantic’s James Fallows: “We’re very intentionally setting out a model that we hope other people with money will follow… We’d like people to think, ‘Let’s do what the Dangermonds did.’ We’d like them to copy us.”

The gift comes at a time when the philanthropy of tech winners has been rapidly picking up, shifting norms within this world and raising expectations of even greater giving by industry leaders sitting on billions of dollars of private wealth in an era of rising inequality and other urgent problems like climate change. Some big givers, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have explicitly called on their fellow wealthy techies to give more and to give faster. While it's hard to say how much impact such entreaties have, the pressure to step up giving can only grow as more tech leaders like the Dangermonds step forward with very large gifts. 

But the example that the Dangermonds hope to set for the country’s wealthy, particularly those from California's tech industry, is primarily one of preserving natural habitats. Will the Dangermonds' gift actually inspire the state’s super-wealthy to buy up threatened pieces of land for preservation? And should it? 

First off, the donation is laudable, and a notable example of conservation philanthropy in a few ways. For one, it’s the largest gift the Nature Conservancy has ever received. It was also a coup for the couple and the TNC team that acquired it, as they had been feeling out the purchase for two years. The land had been vulnerable to development for years, and previous owners had been making alterations in violation of the California Coastal Act. 

The Dangermonds fell in love with the stretch of the coast while camping on their honeymoon in the 1960s. The couple co-founded mapping software company Esri, which has brought their net worth to an estimated $4.1 billion (the company is privately held so it’s hard to say, exactly). Previously, we've reported on Esri's extensive giving for education. The residents of Redlands, California, are also avid conservationists, having worked with TNC for 30 years, and Jack serving on the board of the National Geographic Society. 

The land is also an archaeological site with significance to the Chumash people, and is important to the state’s biodiversity. It encompasses multiple key regions of plant and animal life, and connects wildlife habitats of Northern and Southern California. Part of the gift will establish a conservation chair at UC Santa Barbara, and a research partnership with the university and TNC. Other than that, the preserve will be off-limits to the public, owned and managed by the nonprofit. 

Talking about the example he hopes this gift will set, Jack Dangermond notes that we haven’t seen enough of a commitment to “nonpolitical conservation issues,” and if they had more money themselves, “would love to have 100 Dangermond Reserves,” but instead hope others will join in. He says the clock is ticking here, because “these places are disappearing fast.” 

This is an admirable impulse. As wealth continues to accumulate and philanthropy ascends, Jack Dangermond is right that the environment is still not a top priority, although prominent West Coast billionaires like Gordon and Betty Moore, Paul Allen, and Eric and Wendy Schmidt do give significantly to environmental issues. Going public and issuing a call to other peers is a great move. 

But I would hope that those who do follow in their path will go even further, stepping outside this particular approach of privately buying up and cordoning off parcels of land. Land preserves have an important role to play in environmental funding, but it’s worth noting that land conservation not only remains a popular form of environmental philanthropy, it’s also one with limitations. 

As I was reading about the donation, I couldn’t help but imagine a future California—one besieged by sea level rise and natural disaster, lack of sustainable and affordable housing and transportation, and environmental health and climate impacts that disproportionately affect its poor—but dotted with chunks of privately owned, pristine land, each named for a tech titan.

This is an admittedly cartoonish image, but you get the point. For one, there’s the issue of whether such lands ought to be public (they should). But aside from that, California (and beyond) faces complex threats that lie at the core of why our natural habitats are vulnerable. 

Jack Dangermond is wary of the politicization of environmental protection, favoring a form of “nonpolitical conservation.” But what many would view as political issues—climate change, corporate pollution, poverty, immigration, development—are inextricable from environmental protection. Advocacy, policy, grassroots organizing, and yes, political action, need funding in order to protect natural habitats.

The donation the Dangermonds made to protect this piece of the California coast should be celebrated. But we should challenge those who will be inspired by the couple’s generosity to think creatively and holistically about the environmental crises we face, and push the green philanthropy envelope beyond buying up land, truly changing the way we coexist with our surroundings.