La Verne Magazine
Making A Case For Open Space
by Alexis Lahr
photography by Adam Omernik
Taking a stand to save La Vernes disappearing wild lands, University of
La Verne professors Dan Merritt and Robert Neher are members of the La Verne
Land Conservancy, a new organization fighting to preserve the citys last
Covered in thick mansanita and elderberry shrub and shaded by canopies of
Live Oak trees, the forested area resembles another world. The traffic noise
on the nearby 210 Foothill Freeway is lost; the only sounds are those of scrub-jays
and mockingbirds conversing in the trees. An abandoned Gatorade bottle is an
ugly reminder of the nearness of the city.
In the verdant foothills overlooking north La Verne, in the midst of expensive
housing developments and well-manicured golf courses, lies a wild stretch of
landat least for now. If the La Verne Land Conservancy wins its fight,
this land, as well as other undeveloped sites, will remain one of the last natural
areas in La Verne.
The La Verne Land Conservancy was organized early in 2002 to preserve the
citys remaining open space. Unlike some environmental groups that protest,
picket or camp out up in a tree, the purpose of the La Verne Land Conservancy
is to buy land and restore it to a more natural condition. Conservancies like
this one raise money to buy undeveloped land at market value or receive it through
a donation. After that, they partner with the city or other organizations to
maintain the land.
The inspiration for the La Verne Land Conservancy started not far from Katherine
Winsors backyard. Winsor and her family moved into their home in northern
La Verne nearly eight years ago. After growing up in Salt Lake City, Winsor
found living in Los Angeles challenging, until she discovered La Verne. I
found home, she laughs.
Winsor says she bought her home because of the open space behind the house
and the abundance of wildlife she sees there. An environmental consultant for
20 years, Winsor has a bachelors degree in environmental studies and says
nature is part of my person.
She enjoys seeing birds, deer and an occasional bear near her home, and wants
to protect the wildlife from development. Since she knew she could not fight
the threat of building alone, she tried to organize her neighbors by handing
out flyers. Despite the positive response, Winsor knew this would be a tough
battle for a small group of homeowners. She sought direction from Ann Croissant,
president of the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy, another local conservation
organization. At the same time, investment professional and former La Verne
City Council candidate Michael Sanchez expressed interest in joining an environmental
group. Winsor and Sanchez were put in touch through members of the SGMRC, and
they soon became the La Verne Land Conservancys first president and secretary,
respectively. Through Croissant, they discovered Dr. Dan Merritt, professor
of zoology and environmental science at the University of La Verne. Merritt
has lived in La Verne off and on for nearly 24 years and willingly became the
Conservancys vice president. Their unique skills and knowledge complimented
each other, and from the union, the La Verne Land Conservancy was launched.
After registering with the state, the Conservancy became an official nonprofit
organization in November 2002 and began seeking opportunities to carry out its
mission. While its purpose is conservation, the La Verne Land Conservancy does
not plan to isolate areas or keep them off limits. Sure there are conservationists
who would like to lock the land up and keep everybody off, but you have to be
open to the opportunity for recreation that wouldnt have too high an impact
on the area, Merritt says. At the top of his list are hiking trails, equestrian
paths and wilderness parks, which Merritt says are activities compatible
with maintaining a relatively natural state. He believes lack of exposure
is one reason some people do not care about the environment. How many
young people have been in a forest and spent some time experiencing what it
feels like? he asks. If they have never experienced nature, it is no
wonder they dont have an awareness and appreciation, he says.
At first glance, La Verne seems to lack land to preserve. Even the Conservancy
members were surprised by the 350 acres of open space they discovered. One of
the main areas targeted for preservation is located north of Golden Hills Road,
near the Sierra La Verne Country Club. This area has seen its share of disturbance,
from wildfires to flooding, and, more recently, the threat of becoming a housing
development. It is home to a variety of animals, including deer, bears, coyotes,
hawks and bobcats. Another area of interest, known as the horse property,
is located a few blocks east on Golden Hills Road and is also slated for development.
These particular areas have remained somewhat natural and wild, despite the
presence of adjacent cookie-cutter neighborhoods. Walking along the recently
flooded creek bed and through the thick brush, one escapes into the quiet, jungle-like
area of the northern property. It is easy to forget that civilization lies just
over a hill; nevertheless, empty beer bottles, k-shaped concrete barriers that
zigzag down the hill like a pinball game (to prevent flooding), and splattered
neon pink and green markings from paint ball battles serve as evidence of past
As a new organization, the La Verne Land Conservancy does not have the money
to buy all of the undeveloped land in La Verne. In late December 2002, it learned
of a grant program offered by the U.S. Department of Water Resources that could
help financially. The Flood Protection and Corridor Program would provide funding
for the Conservancy to buy the land north of Golden Hills Road, restore it and
re-vegetate it to reduce erosion and flooding. Conservancy members were initially
unsure whether the grant applied to this particular piece of land, since it
was not recognized as a flood plane at that time. However, the heavy rain in
November significantly impacted the land as trees, rocks and debris were swept
down the hillside, mauling everything in their path. With some encouragement
from Croissant, the group decided to apply for the grant. This is why
we formed, Winsor says. It seems overwhelming when you first look
at it. When you take a step back, its doable.
Under a tight deadline, the group plunged in and began the tedious process
of completing the application. The largest challenge came in finding three area
land owners who would consider selling their land if the Conservancy were able
to come up with the money. While they were able to get confirmation from two
of the owners, the third refused. With two out of three, the members thought
they still might have a chance to qualify for the grant. More help came from
Dan Keesey, La Verne director of public works, who was able to provide specific
information identifying the area as a flood plane. Then, the day the application
was due, one of the land owners backed out of the agreement. It had been such
a monumental effort to get to that point, says Winsor, that they
had to proceed anyway. Despite the obstacles, the application was sent and literally
arrived five minutes before the deadline. The Conservancy requested a total
of $4.7 million to acquire 250 acres of land, set up a trust fund and conduct
environmental studies. Forty-five applications were received for the federal
grant, requesting more than $142 million, yet only $30 million is available.
Winsor says she takes comfort knowing that Northern California has received
grant money for the last 20 years, and the Department of Water Resources is
now looking for projects in Southern California. In the event that the La Verne
Land Conservancy members receive the grant, they hope to partner with the city
or other conservancies to manage the land. Part of the grant proposal includes
a plan to fund the care of the land for the first few years. They have also
considered using the help of the California Conservation Corps, the largest
youth conservation organization working to protect and enhance the environment.
There are plenty of other opportunities for the Conservancy if it does not
get this particular grant. In addition to applying for different grants and
working to save other areas in La Verne, there is also regional work. Even
though much of the land has been developed, there is still a need for protecting
the functions of the watershed, Merritt says. He also hopes the Conservancy
will work with other organizations to re-establish natural corridors that allow
wildlife to roam and develop.
What started as an attempt to protect the wildlife and the open space near
Winsors home grew into something much more. After discovering the beauty
of the canyon and the flood issues associated with the area, the movement has
taken on a life of its own, she says. In just over a year, the Conservancys
three-member board has grown to six, including Dr. Robert Neher, biology professor,
chairman of the natural science division at ULV and a former La Verne City Council
member; Beverly Rupel, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens staff member; and Jeff
Hutchins, landscape architect. Additionally, Jane Riggs, community activist,
serves as an ad hoc member. All bring their own individual strengths to the
organization and share a passion for open space preservation.
The Conservancy members are aware that their dedication is not shared by everyone.
In this country, we have a strong land ownership and profit-making ethic
that trumps the environmental, natural, protection ethic, Merritt says.
Its much easier to focus on earning money and buying things and
doing what you want to do, he adds. Merritt and other conservancy members
do not agree that environmental preservation prevents progress. They feel that
preserving land improves quality of life and ensures that something is left
for future generations. It depends on your definition of progress,
Merritt argues. All you have to do is look around metropolitan Los Angeles
and the impact of urban development on our resources, space, air quality and
quality of life. If that is progress, then Im from another planet.
Despite the difficulties their group has faced and will undoubtedly face in
the future, the members of the La Verne Land Conservancy are determined to keep
fighting. I know if we dont, nobody else will, Winsor says.
A conservancy has to be the voice. Merritt and Winsor agree that
it has been helpful to have other conservancies around.
Theyve given us a lot of support, encouragement and ideas,
Merritt says. Probably the only thing that keeps me going is knowing there
are small things we can do to feel like we are making a difference, he
adds. Merritt says he knows they will not be able to persuade everyone of the
importance of their vision. Part of the difference he feels he makes is through
education and bringing this information into the classroom. He and the other
Conservancy members do not plan to stand by as La Vernes last remaining
open spaces disappear. If I felt like I wasnt making a difference,
he says, then I am just watching it all happen.