In Service to the Landscape
Entrusted with protecting Big Sur’s vistas, Bill Leahy works to restore relationships to history and the land.
Some locations just seem to nurture and foster artists of all types. The heat and history of Mississippi gave us William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. The majestic Hudson River influenced an entire school of painting and storytellers like Washington Irving. On California’s Pacific coast, the iconic scenery of Big Sur has inspired many notable American artists including John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.
Protecting that uniquely American stretch of land is the goal of the Big Sur Land Trust in Carmel, Calif., and its executive director, Bill Leahy, BA’83.
Leahy’s career began on the other side of the country. After graduating from the College of Arts and Science with an economics degree, he returned home to the Washington, D.C., area and worked in commercial real estate. While he enjoyed it, the work didn’t fulfill a deeper yearning. “As a young kid I had a lot of opportunities to be outdoors, including some trips to the Smokies while I was at the College of Arts and Science,” Leahy says. His love of nature led him to volunteer with the Maryland chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
“Then I had a kind of epiphany. I realized my real estate skill set could be applied to resource protection through land conservation,” he says. “I really wanted to find a way to be in service to the native landscape.”
Leahy went to work for the Nature Conservancy, first in Missouri and then in Southern California. In 2001 he moved north to Monterey County, rich with a diversity of natural resources including the Big Sur Coast and the fertile Salinas Valley. As part of his Nature Conservancy position, he worked with the Big Sur Land Trust, a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving the area’s natural resources. Leahy joined the land trust in 2003.
The Big Sur Land Trust was formed in 1978 by a small group of area citizens worried about the threat of development to the region’s natural, recreational and scenic resources. Its goal was to proactively protect the landscape by acquisition of properties or establishment of conservation easements. (One of today’s most effective conservation tools for land trusts nationwide, conservation easements are agreements with landowners to maintain their property for conservation in perpetuity.) Since its founding, the Big Sur Land Trust has successfully conserved more than 30,000 acres of shoreline, wildlife habitat, streams, forests, grasslands and rangelands.
As the trust’s executive director, Leahy applies the economics background he acquired at Vanderbilt and the business skills he honed while in commercial real estate.
“An effective land trust often needs to look to the success of forprofit business models,” he says. “We are very strategic. Sometimes we think of ourselves as conservation developers. When you’re developing an office building you have to have a pretty rigorous planning process and timeline and financing capabilities. We do the same thing, only from the standpoint of acquiring, conserving, restoring and stewarding the land for natural resources.”
Leahy says that the trust faces additional challenges today, including large-scale ecological, economic and cultural threats to native landscapes. The trust deals with them through broader collaborations with communities and private landowners.
Connecting People to the Land
One of the greatest challenges facing land conservation groups today, Leahy believes, is the inexorable loss of connection to the land that happens at all levels of society.
He sees families who can no longer afford to keep their lands in ranching, farmworkers who don’t have opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, and young people from all areas of society who don’t experience outdoor activity.
“Kids used to learn a lot of problem-solving skills building forts and treehouses out in the woods. Kids today are really disassociated from the land,” Leahy says, noting he isn’t just referring to those in metropolitan areas. “It’s just as problematic in communities where the children are overscheduled or have other distractions like TiVo and Wii. On the other hand, we have kids in Salinas who’ve never seen the ocean, and it’s only six miles away.”
To address this problem, the Big Sur Land Trust is looking at how it can collaborate with local communities to develop a network of parks and outdoor spaces. The goal is to reconnect people—young and old—with the outdoors and build the next generation of land conservationists. In one such project, the land trust is working with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Monterey County to develop a campus for outdoor environmental education. It has acquired an 800-acre ranch, rich in wildlife and local history, for this use.
Inspiration that Supports the Landscape
Another project on Leahy’s agenda honors Big Sur’s past as an area that inspired countless artists while providing income to protect its future.
“We are working to develop a retreat center on some land that was donated about a decade ago,” he says. “We want to provide an inspiring place for artists—and even scientists—to come and create music or write and to interact with one another. Big Sur is such a remarkable place, and we want to nurture that connection between arts and the landscape and between the arts and science, which both get their inspiration from the natural world.”
Leahy says his employment of economics and business planning skills in land conservation is a natural progression for a liberal arts major.
“A liberal arts education has nothing to do with land conservation, and yet it has everything to do with land conservation,” he says. “When we talk about the story of humanity and a sustainable community, it’s about honoring and cherishing and recognizing and supporting all that we are as human beings. That’s the evolution of land conservation from a very nuts and bolts idea to one that’s, in fact, restoring our relationship to our history or our relationship to the land.”
photo credit: Maschinenraum, Heather Sorenson, Keith Skelton