April 29, 2015 - From the April/May, 2015 issue

Reed Holderman: Saluting a Luminary’s Career Protecting the West Coast’s Natural Lands

Reed Holderman, veteran environmental conservationist, is retiring from his post as executive director of Sempervirens after a fruitful career with the Trust for Public Land and state agencies. In this interview with TPR, he reflects on the growth of the conservation field over the last 30 years and his accomplishments within it—so far. He remains active in the field as a consultant and as a board member at the LA-based nonprofit Community Conservation Solutions.


“Out of all the stuff I’ve done at Sempervirens, I’m happiest about putting a conservation easement on two Girl Scout camps that were going to be sold.” —Reed Holderman

Reed, you’ve publicly announced that you’re retiring from Sempervirens after 30 years of work in the environmental and preservation arena. Some Californians have suggested your career contributions have been the equal of John Muir’s.

Reed Holderman: There’s a lot more activity in the environmental arena since John Muir—thankfully, because of John Muir. It’s more complicated now, and more difficult to distinguish oneself and one’s contributions from all the other people doing good work. I’d like to think that after 36 years of working in land conservation in California, I’ve had some successes. 

I am proudest of three things. First, the launching of Parks for People of Los Angeles while I was at TPL. While we didn’t do 25 urban parks in the poorest communities in LA in five years, we did build 16 across California. That felt good. 

Second, the Ballona Wetlands, which still stands as the most expensive project TPL ever did in the history of the organization. I think we paid $136 million to stop the extension of Playa Vista west of Lincoln Boulevard. I feel good about that because of all the schoolkids and people that are going to learn about nature, ecology, and eco-science, and just have some time outside. 

More recently, out of all the stuff I’ve done at Sempervirens, I’m happiest about putting a conservation easement on two Girl Scout camps that were going to be sold. They had been teaching young women about the environment since the 1950s, and to think that they were going to be boarded up was tragic. 10,000 girls go through both the Skylark and Butano camps each year. It would have been a crime for that to go away. We cut a deal with the Girl Scouts in Northern California: We would buy a conservation easement so they couldn’t develop any more than what they already had, with some modernization. They couldn’t cut the trees. They could take the money, but they’d have to keep the camps open from this point forward. They agreed. 

I’m not John Muir—far from it—but I worked as hard as I could and have some good things to show for it.

Let’s start with your six years of work with Sempervirens, which our readers in Southern California know too little about. Tell us about the challenge that took you to this “small but mighty” organization.

Sempervirens is going to celebrate its 115th birthday this May. Andrew P. Hill, its founder, was a fairly well-known painter and photographer at the turn of the century. He actually knew John Muir—they were contemporaries.

Hill saw the devastation of timber harvesting in the Santa Cruz Mountains—just like Muir saw the potential for water and reservoir development in the Sierras—and said, “Stop! There has to be some place that’s sacred, safe, and available to future generations.” And so Hill started the Sempervirens Club of California. 

Here, 115 years later, we’re still trying to reassemble the redwood-forest ecosystem that was almost obliterated in 1900 by clearcut logging. That would’ve been a shame because the redwood tree is one of the oldest on the planet and lives to be 2,000 years old. It’s the tallest living thing on the planet. They only grow in a very small portion of the world. 

When I left TPL to come to Sempervirens, I knew a little less than what I just told you. I was surprised to see that they were poised to do a lot more and to think big picture—not only about how to protect the redwood ecosystem, but also how to connect it to all the other natural and recreational resources in the Bay Area to collectively form an urban central greenbelt for the entire region. 

I was lucky to have a good career with them. 

Talk about the very significant pieces you were able to acquire and save as part of your work at Sempervirens these last six years.

Our biggest project was the 8,500-acre San Vicente Redwoods, which we purchased with the Peninsula Open Space Trust and a few other partners at the depth of the recession for $30 million.

The San Vicente Redwoods was formerly owned by the CEMEX Corporation, which is the largest manufacturer of cement in the world—a Mexican company, based in Monterey, Mexico. They said, “We’ll sell it to you for $6 million less than asking price, but you’ve got to come up with $30 million in three months.” 

This is the largest parcel in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and we delivered. Not only did we protect the San Vicente property, but we also connected it to the Coast Dairies property that I had worked on at the Trust for Public Land. (In fact, I was the president of the Coast Dairies & Land Company for 11 years.) Up until the San Vicente, the Coast Dairies was the largest single protected property in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Together, the protected area now totals around 15,000 acres. If we play our cards right, we may be able to connect a few more pieces in the next couple of years and form land bridges to recreate the Redwood Forest Ecosystem that once existed in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In preparation for leaving Sempervirens, you left a letter behind for your successor, Shelley Ratay. What did it say?

I wanted to tell Shelley and our donors that we operate on many different levels. 

We operate on the grassroots level. The people of Santa Cruz think of this as their local land trust. 

We operate in Silicon Valley, where a lot of wealth and power in the South Bay are located and where most of our donors live.

We operate within the San Francisco Bay Region, which is not as big as Los Angeles, but still totals 8 million people with the largest city being San Jose.

We also operate within the state, national, and international communities. 

I was trying to tell Shelley that she’ll have to operate on all of these levels differently to be successful. If you figure out how to make connections and find intersections where everyone wants to work together on something, you can make magic happen. 

We were able to do that on a few projects. Everyone has very different interests and ideas. Players come in and out of the equation. But there are moments in time where you can snap the rope, everything’s lined up, and wonderful things happen. 

My advice to Shelley is: you’ve got to find those moments, because it’s not enough to just do the little projects anymore. They have to be the little projects that roar—that amount to something much more than just what they are.

Before Sempervirens, the “small but mighty,” you were with the “mighty”: Trust for Public Land. There you were Senior Vice President and Western Regional Director. Talk about that tenure, what you brought to it, and what you took from that experience.

The Trust for Public Land is a great organization. You’re right: it has tremendous muscle and reach. At the high point, I was Senior Vice President and Western Regional Director for six states. Our operating budget was around $27 million. We were doing about $200 million in conservation real estate every year, plus building urban parks, dealing with state bond acts in each of the six states, doing the eco-regional planning, and a number of other things. It was an exciting ride. 

As I look back, we have a lot to show for it. In a way, it was the golden era for TPL. We had the best and brightest and were rip-roaring through the land conservation community, buying and protecting everything that was important at the time. If you look back at the list, it’s some of the most magnificent properties in the West. 

From the 25,000-acre Wao Kele o Puna on the Big Island, to the Ballona Wetlands in Southern California, to all the work we did on the Gaviota Coast near the Sierras, and across the West, in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, it was quite a list. 

But we didn’t have much time to think about it. It was non-stop action. People were committed to giving it all, and I was one of them. 

Coming to Sempervirens was a bit of a shock because I could actually think about what I was trying to do instead of just doing all the time. I appreciated that. 

I think that some of the things I left behind at Sempervirens reflect that ability to plan more strategically. (I’m not saying TPL wasn’t strategic, but there was so much to do that it was really hard to get ahead of the locomotive.)

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At Sempervirens, we did a conceptual area plan for the entire Santa Cruz Mountains that ran every parcel through 16 different filters to identify the best of the best. We’re executing on that vision by creating a carbon aggregation bank, by doing traditional land acquisition, by running a national monument campaign, and by potentially even buying a cement plant—turning a brown field into a green field and creating an entryway from the coast into the Santa Cruz Redwoods. 

Slowing things down, having a smaller operating budget, and having a smaller staff allow you to do different things. 

You can’t be a locomotive where you’re buying everything in sight and raising billions of dollars, but you can make a lot happen in a very short period of time—stuff that is impactful and meaningful. 

Earlier you mentioned TPL’s work to be an equally relevant player in the urban agenda through Parks for People. Could you describe how that effort played out?

I think it was the foreshadowing of what TPL has become—focused on urban parks and the urban agenda in America. We may have been the catalyst.

At the time, TPL was doing 50 percent urban work and 50 percent non-urban work. We were trying to connect the urban to the wild and build bridges between the two. I loved that challenge. 

People could go to an urban park in El Monte and hopefully, a few years later, you might see those same people at Yosemite or Lake Tahoe. To me, we were trying to make it one contiguous ecosystem of people entering into nature in various forms and enjoying it however they wanted. 

Since then, TPL has shifted almost entirely to their urban program. That’s probably a good thing, because we’re an urban state. There are a lot of Parks for People to be saved and developed so people do have access to a park within their neighborhood. 

Hopefully the rest of us can build out the natural and wild infrastructure, so that when people in LA or San Jose go to their urban parks and connect with nature, they can also go to the redwoods and enjoy them as well.

Could you share an example of your work while at Trust for Public Land—perhaps the Tejon Ranch Conservation Plan, which created a 100,000-acre preserve?

At the time, Bob Stein was the CEO of Tejon Ranch. We, like a lot of other suitors, knocked on his door and said we could figure this out. For whatever reason, Bob thought we might be able to pull something off.

I said, “We’re not going to negotiate a deal until we figure out what you have.” He agreed, and so we spent a couple of years doing a conservation plan. When you don’t have the answer, you have to take a step back and do the planning. We did.

We figured out that of all 270,000 acres on the property, about 100,000 seemed like the best of the best. If you were going to strike a deal, that’s what you wanted to go for. 

We negotiated our deal to buy that 100,000 acres based on the conservation plan. We had an option based on an appraisal. We didn’t complete that deal—other people completed it for us. But I feel good that we were able to set the table for others to sit down and eat. In this business, it’s not who gets the credit, but what gets done, that’s important.

Reed, what inspired your professional focus and a life so well spent in this field? 

I grew up in East LA. When I was old enough and had the resources, my escape was going to the Owens Valley, the east part of the Sierras. I would backpack. That’s been a place of refuge my entire life. I left LA every summer and would spend as much of my time as possible there. 

Coming back one summer after a month in the Sierras, I was going down the Cajon Pass into San Bernardino and there was that big, brown smog in the Basin. I thought, “The world has to look more like what I just left than what I’m going into.” 

At the time, I was thinking about entering law school but said, “I’m going to see if I can make a career out of this whole environment thing.” In the early ’70s, there wasn’t much in the way of a career path. There were jobs at the Forest Service and the National Parks Service. The Coastal Commission was still new. But I went that direction anyway, thinking I’d figure it out eventually. My first job out of graduate school at UC Santa Barbara was with the Forest Service—I started off on the path of least resistance—and then moved to the Coastal Commission, the Coastal Conservancy.

It was that contrast between the sheer beauty, pure water, and blue sky, and then dipping down into LA in the summer when it’s at its worst that made me think, “There has to be something better for the people of Los Angeles.” I was going to try to find that. I don’t know if I did, but I certainly gave it my best effort.

As you were finding your career path, who along the way did you look to for inspiration and direction?

One of the people that inspired me most was Gary Snyder. His poetry spoke to me. 

Then there’s the litany of others: Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang, David Brower, John Muir. Bruce Babbitt is one of my heroes. These people were so practical, wanted to do the right thing, and understood the importance of nature in our lives. I learned a lot from them. When I read Design With Nature by Ian McHarg, I was blown away that you could apply ecological thinking to an urban place. 

You wrote a missive to the Mercury News at the bottom of the fiscal crisis in California a couple of years ago called “Saving California Parks Shouldn’t Be This Hard.” Please give us a synopsis of what you wrote and what followed from that letter.

I wrote it because the governor was proposing to close 70 parks. I thought that somebody needed to say, “This is a really bad idea.” Parks mean so much to us. It’s not our financial analysis that should determine whether they close. Plus, it was a bad deal for California. 

During the Depression, we created some of our largest and best national parks. Then we’re faced with a similar challenge, and the best answer we can come up with is to close them? I thought that was crazy.

I wanted to say that we could come up with better alternatives. We could be more imaginative and inventive than going to the lowest possible denominator of cutting costs. 

Sempervirens created the first park in California, Big Basin, in 1902, and then went on to create four more. Two of those four were going to close, so we had a vested interest in this.

In the end, we gave the state $250,000 to keep Castle Rock open. I pledged to the state that we would come up with a better alternative as to what a park should look like at Castle Rock that would be more financially independent, more loved, and more used than the one they currently had. 

We just got a permit from Santa Cruz County to build what I call the “park for the 21st century” at Castle Rock on land we own. We’re going forward with it. When we’re done, I think it will be a model for the next generation of parks. There will be a big public-private partnership. There will be downloadable applications that millennials and people in Silicon Valley can get when they come to the gate. It’s a whole different way of thinking about parks. 

Back when I wrote the article, I was so sad that closing parks was the best we could come up with. As the Legislative Analyst, General Accounting officer, and everyone else said, even with closing, it wouldn’t save money. But it wasn’t a money call—it was just a lack of imagination. 

Reed, John Muir admirers are also admirers of you!

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