Conservation through Compromise or Conflict

Lessons from California’s Tejon Ranch

High Country News reports on a simmering conflict over the development of California’s Tejon Ranch, an area of the Sierra Nevada mountains 70 miles north of Los Angeles. The conflict is somewhat surprising, since the land is the subject of a conservation easement once described as the “conservation deal of the century.” The agreement demonstrates the benefits of pursuing conservation through negotiation, the difficult challenges of doing so, and the allure (but not necessarily achievements) of environmental litigation.

In 2008, conservation groups negotiated a deal with the land’s owner to preserve 90% of the ranch (240,000 acres) in exchange for the groups not opposing housing development on the other 10%. From High Country News‘ description of the property, it’s easy to see why conservationists would covet its protection.

The historic cattle ranch — owned by Tejon Ranch Company, an agribusiness listed on the New York Stock Exchange — lies at the convergence of four distinct ecological regions. The Sierra Nevada meets the Tehachapi Mountains, joining the San Joaquin Valley on the northwest flank of the ranch, and the Mojave Desert on the southeast. Tejon is one of 25 hotspots worldwide recognized by the nonprofit Conservation International for its rich biodiversity, which includes endangered Bakersfield cactus and blunt-nosed leopard lizards. It is also a key wildlife corridor, the last remaining link between the grasslands on the western and eastern edges of the San Joaquin Valley.

“The Foothills of California, Tejon Ranch”

Now, 10 years later, the owners are ready to develop the property and the conservation groups are being asked to uphold their end of the bargain. Although they would have preferred to own the property outright and conserve all of it (but at what cost?), the groups nonetheless continue to recognize the benefits of the agreement they were able to reach. “Both sides had to swallow hard before striking this deal, but both came away with results they never could have secured any other way,” said Graham Chisholm, then executive director of Audubon California.

By negotiating, the groups got a say in which areas would be preserved and which would remain available for development. They also obtained access to the land for scientists studying its unique ecology, which the owners had previously refused because of the regulatory consequences of finding protected species on their land. Unfortunately, that’s a common unintended consequence of burdensome environmental regulation, which limits our knowledge of the environmental benefits provided by private lands.

Compromises like this are a win-win: even if neither side gets everything they want, both do better than they might have done otherwise. “You want to hit a home run every time you get up to bat. Sometimes you hit a triple, sometimes a single,” according to Kim Delfino, California program director for the Defenders of Wildlife. Still, if easements guarantee protections in perpetuity, “they often make more sense than rolling the dice in the courts,” she said.

Tejon Ranch is once again the focus of conflict because not all groups agree that compromise makes more sense than rolling the dice in the courts. Each of the proposed developments have been (or soon will be) challenged as inconsistent with environmental regulations. The allure of litigation is understandable, as it’s the only way to secure a win-lose outcome where you get everything you want, all at the someone else’s expense. Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity (the group bringing many of the lawsuits) said she prefers the risks of litigation to conservation agreements because the latter “are always a compromise.”

However, the litigation approach can also result in a clear lose-lose outcome, with both sides spending copious amounts of time and money on a lawsuit that benefits neither. In fact, that’s precisely what’s been happening at Tejon Ranch. As the High Country News story acknowledges, “the lawsuits have been mostly ineffective” with one already dismissed entirely.

Perhaps the takeaway from Tejon Ranch shouldn’t be the challenges that can arise under long term conservation agreements. Instead, the lesson is about two different visions of conservation: one that sees opportunities for mutual benefit and compromise; another than sees opportunities for conflict and litigation. At Tejon Ranch, the former has protected 240,000 acres of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, the latter has (so far) protected zero.

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