Bigger Isn’t Always Better: Buying Inholdings to Strengthen Land and Habitat Protection

Bigger Isn’t Always Better: Buying Inholdings to Strengthen Land and Habitat Protection

With its rich natural treasure of sparkling beaches, pristine deserts, lofty forests, and soaring mountains, descriptions of the beauty and grandeur of California often tempt disbelief. California is home to the oldest, largest, and tallest living things on Earth; the longest wall of contiguous granite on the planet; the nation’s largest mountain lake; the highest point in 49 states; and the lowest point in all 50. No other state in the continental U.S. has more biodiversity; no other has more kinds of animals and plants.

By the late 1990s, many important resources had been protected across the state, through a variety of tools, including state and federal wilderness designation, as well as state and national parks. Yet despite such protection, threats to California’s natural resources grew more urgent as the impacts of population growth, sprawl, pollution, and climate change continued to mount. By the turn of the 21st century, California had lost 80 percent of its wild lands and significant portions of native habitat, including 99 percent of native grasslands, 94 percent of inland wetlands, and 89 percent of riparian woodlands. The loss of habitat meant a loss of diversity, undermining the sustainability of the state’s ecological systems, health, and quality of life. In many protected areas, these threats and losses were compounded by the existence of private “inholdings”—small, isolated parcels—within or adjacent to protected lands, which disproportionately complicate the management of protected areas, impede further protection through wilderness designation or park expansion (since private parcel owners often are opponents of new or expanded designations or park expansions), and compromise the quality of habitat in and near protected lands.

People often assume that creation of a national park or preserve creates large contiguous blocks of protected area; in fact, many preserves contain a mix of public and private lands. For example, the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 increased protection for over seven million acres of desert wild lands. The parks, preserves, wilderness, and wilderness study areas created by the act, however, were only partially protected. Privately-owned inholdings within them threatened their ecological integrity. It is critical to remove such inholdings because of the threat they pose to parks and wilderness, as well as the leverage their removal can provide to expanding protected lands and habitat. But there has been a lack of interest in doing so on the part of most conservation organizations, which have tended instead to focus on larger, higher-profile acquisitions.

To address this gap, from its inception RLF has maintained a focus—through several programs—on purchasing strategically-located, smaller inholdings of less than 500 acres with many less than 50. A primary arena for this work has been the vast network of protected areas in the California desert, including Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, the Mojave Desert National Preserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and numerous wilderness and wilderness study areas located on desert lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

An example of RLF’s strategic use of inholdings acquisitions can be seen in the effort to protect the lands surrounding Beauty Mountain, along the southern edge of Riverside County. A pristine watershed and an ecological transition zone between desert and coastal sage scrub, the area serves as a critical bridge for migrating wildlife in a rapidly urbanizing region. For years, efforts in Congress to extend desert protection and federal wilderness designation were stalled in a partisan, all-or-nothing deadlock. The outlook for progress dimmed even further in 2002 when wilderness opponents took over leadership of key congressional committees. Through its Preserving Wild California program, RLF pursued a range of strategies. Central among them was funding grantees to purchase private inholdings that were then donated to federal land management agencies, to prevent incompatible uses that could harm natural resources as well as to eliminate potential sources of opposition to wilderness designation.

RLF awarded $11 million in grants to The Wilderness Land Trust and The Conservation Fund to acquire more than 8,000 acres of private inholdings—the centerpiece of which was Beauty Mountain itself—and leverage more than $11 million in additional federal and state dollars to help acquire lands and remove potential obstacles to wilderness designation. In addition, RLF enhanced the capacity of and provided guidance—in California and Washington, D.C.—to the groups that made up the California wilderness movement, orchestrated the groups’ shift from a statewide wilderness bill to district-by-district bills, overcame partisanship by hiring Republican and Democratic lobbyists and working with members of both parties in Congress, and played a key intermediary role to help make deals happen.

In March 2009, the California Desert and Mountain Heritage Act was signed into law as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act. It included wilderness designation for 198,491 acres in four new areas—including Beauty Mountain Wilderness—and seven existing areas in Riverside County. Later, Congressman Darrell Issa introduced a bill that protected the portions of Beauty Mountain located in San Diego County adjacent to the now-protected areas in Riverside County.

The impact of RLF’s inholdings purchases was clearly greater than the amount of acreage involved. By using philanthropic acquisition funds strategically, RLF helped create clusters of land parcels that collectively provided protection to important blocks of contiguous land or important wildlife corridors. Using acquisitions in this way expanded the impact of the funds by producing landscapes of higher ecological value. By pursuing acquisitions that were strategically located across the state, RLF’s grants have affected more than 80 existing protected areas, by expanding or completing them, or by connecting them to other protected areas. They also have protected habitat for more than 83 listed rare, threatened, or endangered plant and animal species and helped create more federal designations for permanent protection.

In addition, RLF’s land acquisition efforts have had a remarkable impact on national parks, inside California and beyond. For the California desert national parks alone, RLF has funded more than 750 purchases totaling nearly 133,000 acres, through more than $27 million in grants that leveraged almost $14 million in additional funding. And RLF’s impact on national parks across California and beyond has been even more impactful: nearly 780 purchases totaling almost 236,000 acres, with grants totaling almost $33 million, leveraging over $73 million dollars from other sources.

In the end, the importance of RLF’s pioneering work on the purchase of inholdings extends far beyond the number of grants made or the acres acquired. Its importance lies in the habitats it has helped protect, giving the species that live within them a chance in the face of climate change. It is work that highlights RLF’s ability to pursue a low-profile strategy and thoughtfully integrate it with a range of approaches to attain significant outcomes, from wilderness designation to the preservation of entire ecosystems.

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