Taking a stand to save La Verne’s 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 city’s last natural areas. / photo by Adam Omernik

Taking a stand to save La Verne’s 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 city’s last natural areas. / photo by Adam Omernik

by Alexis Lahr
photography by Adam Omernik

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 land—at 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 city’s 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 Winsor’s 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 bachelor’s 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 Conservancy’s 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 Conservancy’s vice president. Their unique skills and knowledge complimented each other, and from the union, the La Verne Land Conservancy was launched.

Where houses meet the hills, Bob Neher and Dan Merritt, ULV science professors with the La Verne Land Conservancy, strive to protect La Verne’s last wild lands. / photo by Adam Omernik

Where houses meet the hills, Bob Neher and Dan Merritt, ULV science professors with the La Verne Land Conservancy, strive to protect La Verne’s last wild lands. / photo by Adam Omernik

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 wouldn’t 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 don’t 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 visitors.

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, it’s 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 Winsor’s 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 Conservancy’s 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. “It’s 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 I’m 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 don’t, 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.

“They’ve 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 Verne’s last remaining open spaces disappear. “If I felt like I wasn’t making a difference,” he says, “then I am just watching it all happen.”