Escrow on a historic land deal in Santa Barbara County closed Thursday afternoon as the 24,364-acre Cojo Jalama Ranches (also known as the Bixby Ranch) was purchased for $165 million by The Nature Conservancy, the largest environmental nonprofit in the western hemisphere. The price was negotiated between The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and The Baupost Group, a Boston-based investment firm which had owned the property since 2007; a private donation from Jack and Laura Dangermond enabled TNC to purchase the land. Jack Dangermond is the president and cofounder of Esri, a pioneering company in mapping and spatial-analysis technology.
“Jack and Laura are just amazing people,” said Michael Bell, TNC’s Oceans Program Director in California. “They’re true environmentalists and conservationists at heart. They realized the cultural and ecological importance of this place [and are] huge believers in protecting our natural world and the best remaining natural areas we have.”
“This is an incredibly rare, ecologically important place with eight miles of coast and centuries-old coastal oak woodlands,” Jack Dangermond said in a statement. “This deserves to be preserved and managed by an organization like The Nature Conservancy.”
Bell said, “The vision . . . is to first and foremost preserve these last-of-their-kind resources,” including sensitive Chumash sites and rich ecologies filled with unique geology, climate, and rare plants and animals. The property has also been home to a working cattle ranch for more than a century. “It’s status quo out there,” he added. “It’s a private cattle ranch closed to the public.”
“The first thing we’re doing is [launching] an 18-month planning phase to see how a nature preserve would work [on the property],” Bell said. “It’s a conservation puzzle, with an intersection of interests,” from resource protection to public access. The Department of Defence also owns a debris easement across a portion of the property, in the event of a failed rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The grander plan, added Bell, is to partner with UCSB to create a world-class research facility and environmental education programing. On December 22, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang announced that the Dangermonds recently donated $1 million to establish the Jack and Laura Dangermond Endowed Chair in Conservation Studies to "enhance UC Santa Barbara’s reputation for research and teaching in the environmental and earth sciences, environmental sustainability and technological innovation," according to a statement. TNC has also had conversations with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. “This needs to be a partnership with local groups to help develop research and education,” Bell said.
Last month, Baupost agreed to restore large swaths of the property and donate 35 acres near Jalama Beach Park to Santa Barbara County as part of a settlement with the California Coastal Commission after dozens of unpermitted wells and roads were discovered on the property. Clearing those violations helped smooth negotiations between Baupost and TNC, Bell said, adding that he first met with Baupost in April 2016. The Dangermonds, who had expressed interest in the property at least as far back as 2006, circled back about a year ago when they learned that TNC had met with Baupost. The investment firm bought the property from the Bixby family in 2007 for $135 million.
Bell said the Dangermonds were initially uncertain if they should reveal their identities with the $165 million donation, the biggest philanthropic gift in TNC’s 65-year history. But by doing so, Bell said, “They hope to inspire other people with the means to support the protection of the natural world. That was part of their decision to go public.”
The property is now the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve.