Doug Parker stood where land preservation began for the Land Trust of Napa County more than 1,000 feet high on the slopes of Mount George with a view of the city of Napa and the Napa Valley below.
The Foote Botanical Preserve – originally 200 acres, today 770 acres—was the first property protected by the nonprofit group 39 years ago. It was the small seed that over the years has grown exponentially.
This year, the Land Trust celebrates its 40th anniversary, having protected more than 57,000 acres of Napa County’s farmland and open space—90 square miles, an area almost twice the size of San Francisco.
“You need some kind of qualified organization to protect land,” said Parker, the organization’s CEO.
Much of the Napa Valley floor visible from the Foote preserve is green with vineyards, as befits a world-famous wine country. Adjoining mountains are covered in forests or chaparral.
But to the south the fast-growing metropolises of the Bay Area are like an arrow of growth pointing toward the valley.
At least two major forces protect Napa Valley from being paved over – vineyard prices in the range of $310,000 an acre and tough agricultural protection laws, including the agricultural preserve zoning. Given the land’s wine country value, who needs a land trust?
“None of the land protected by the ag preserve or the ag watershed is permanently protected,” Parker said.
As unlikely as it seems, county land protection laws might someday end. But land trusts can either own land or own development rights to privately owned land through conservation easements.
“Permanently protected” is how the Land Trust describes its holdings – at least, as permanent as human beings can decree in the 21st-century United States.
It all began with F.S. “Si” Foote, who had previously made his mark in the business world. He and another ex-IBM salesman in 1950 founded TAB, a company making filing systems.
Foote retired and moved to Napa County in in the 1970s, building a stone house near Yountville overlooking Silverado Trail. He worked three years for The Nature Conservancy without salary and decided Napa County needed a land trust.
Land trusts had operated for decades on the East Coast. Similar organizations were being formed in Contra Costa and Marin counties.
“Our task will be to search out unique sections of undeveloped land and to seek the donations of that land for permanent preservation,” Foote said in 1976.
The former businessman had a selling point – someone donating land or development rights to the Land Trust could take advantage of tax incentives.
In June 1977, Foote announced his family had made the first donation with 200 acres on Mount George. He saw the land as being unique for its growth of brittleleaf manzanita and hollyleaf ceanothus.
“The existence of the Napa County Land Trust now makes it possible to keep this area in its natural state for perpetuity,” Foote said.
Harold Kelly was among those who helped with the birth of the Land Trust, meeting at the Footes’ house with a few other people who were behind the idea. They saw a need for a private land-preservation group.
Some people want to preserve their land, but don’t want to deal with government, Kelly said.
Foote had offered his property on Mount George to the county, Kelly said. The county didn’t have a parks district at the time and turned him down. That was among the inspirations for forming the land trust.
“He was a businessman,” Kelly said. “He understood business. He was very generous with his own money and time.”
The Land Trust didn’t spring forth immediately as the powerhouse operation that exists today.
“It was very much a shoestring operation,” Kelly said. “We didn’t have any staff at all for awhile. Finally, we got a halftime staff.”
John Hoffnagle became the first fulltime Land Trust employee in 1988. He stayed as head of the Land Trust until 2012.
In a 1990 interview with the Napa Valley Register, Foote rejected the label of “tree hugger,” though his wife June Foote readily accepted it.
“We work with developers and preservationists,” said Foote, who moved to Oregon in 1995 and died in 2008 at age 91. “We work within the system to try to save as much as we can.”
The Land Trust is designed to protect land without getting involved in political growth disputes. It is no strident, mount-the-barricades battle cry amid the region’s land use battles, but rather a let’s-work-together whisper.
Land owners heeding that whisper might either sell or donate land to the Land Trust.
Owners of the Dunn-Wildlake and Duff ranches took this approach, selling more than 4,000 acres of forested land in the mountains east of St. Helena to the organization in 2006 and 2008 for $25 million. The Land Trust mounted a huge fundraising drive and landed grants for the effort.
Most Land Trust properties are open to the public at least for docent-led hikes. People can hike the 175-acre Linda Falls property near Angwin on their own and see a waterfall tumble down 31 feet of volcanic rock.
Other landowners choose to sell or donate conservation easements. They continue to own the land itself, but the Land Trust owns the development rights.
Andy Beckstoffer is among the property owners who have taken the conservation easement approach. The Virginia native since the early 1970s has headed Beckstoffer Vineyards, which owns and farms 3,600 acres of vineyards in the Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties grape-growing regions.
Beckstoffer has donated 10 conservation easements to the Land Trust totaling more than 400 acres for heritage vineyards planted in the 19th century. Less than a year ago, he donated an easement for the 25-acre Las Piedras vineyard near St. Helena first planted with grapes in the 1840s.
“It’s partly a gift to the community, to ensure these things will always be vineyards,” Beckstoffer said. “It’s also what we want our legacy to be in Napa Valley.”
Conservation easements preserve Napa County’s scenery and rural character, but don’t create parks. The general public can’t hike through these vineyards and ranches without the private property owner’s permission.
The Land Trust of Napa County was hardly the first land trust in the United States. That honor appears to belong to the Trustees of the Reservation, which formed 125 years ago in Massachusetts.
But the Land Trust of Napa County at its birth was still on the cutting edge of a movement that began picking up momentum in the 1970s. About 400 land trusts existed nationwide in 1980, most in the northeast United States and most with annual budgets of less than $50,000, according to the Land Trust Alliance.
Today, 1,699 land trusts exist across the nation, including 197 in California, according to the Land Trust Alliance. They have preserved more than 16 million acre of land, an area the size of West Virginia.
Land trusts as of 2010 had an average operating budget of $460,800, the alliance reports.
The Land Trust of Napa County in its 2013 tax returns reported paying $801,874 in salaries and benefits and having 16 employees who did everything from seek grants to manage the preserves, in addition to having 200 volunteers. It reported $2 million in revenues and $27 million in assets.
Its 2013 income included $110,923 from dues paid by more than 1,000 members, $180,290 from fundraising, $150,430 from government grants, $809,432 from other grants, gifts and contributions and $411,042 from investments.
“We really look at them as a strong, regional land trust,” said Shannon Meyer of the Land Trust Alliance. “Their size puts them in the upper echelon.”
The Land Trust of Napa County ranks in the national top 10 percent among land trusts for operating budget, top 11 percent for staffing and top 5 percent for total acres conserved.
“I would say it is a land trust that has done a really good job in an area of high land values to preserve some of the wonderful features of that area,” Meyer said.
Kelly since helping to found the Land Trust has remained active on the environmental scene. Now in his 80s, his accomplishments include helping to pass Measure J growth controls and serving on the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District Board of Directors.
Kelly recently reflected on how far the Land Trust has come since its 1976 founding. He called it the private side to land preservation, to go along with the government side.
“It exceeded my expectations,” Kelly said. “It has in recent years been just fabulous.”
The Land Trust of Napa County has preserved about 10 percent of the county. It’s not done yet. It has prioritized possible future acquisitions under the categories of agriculture, scenic importance and biodiversity.
“We have about 25 projects we are working on right now with 25 different landowners,” Parker said. “That’s really a high number in the history of the Land Trust.”