December 13, 2021 |Steve Hobbs | Land

In the Nick of Time: Saving Santa Rita Ranch

My mom’s family were farmers and homesteaded prairie land in northern Iowa not long after Iowa had become a state in 1846. I grew up in San Diego and most summers through high school were spent going back to the farm to help. My grandparents couldn’t afford herbicides, so my sister and I had, among other chores, the job of weeding the 80-acre soybean field. You would get up at dawn while it was still cool and armed with a hoe, start walking up and down half-mile rows plodding your way like you were in the world’s longest TSA line, only there’s no shade and thistles are painful. It may not have been as relaxing as spending the summer at the beach surfing, but we managed to have fun and it paid better.

Perhaps because of my farm roots, I’ve always enjoyed working with farmers and ranchers. It is a challenging lifestyle filled with heartache. With that, whether in Iowa or California, farmers also share a deep connection to the land, an appreciation for hard work that may be rewarded, and patience for the rhythm of the seasons.

A couple of years ago, the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County (LCSLO) called to say that they were working with the owner of a 1,700-acre ranch just up the road from Cambria at the headwaters of the Salinas River. The landowner was aggressively marketing the ranch, known as Santa Rita, for sale with one of the more notable real estate brokers in the state. The ranch’s towering oak trees, 30-acre lake and incredible views of the Pacific Ocean were sure to make it a target for creating “ranchettes,” 10-acre lots that don’t do a lot for wildlife or agriculture, as had been done on the adjacent ranch to the north. The problem was a nearly $8,000,000 price tag and no time; we’d have to move fast if we wanted to save it.

Photo by Steve Hobbs.

The other issue for LCSLO was that this was the last undeveloped portion of the former Hartzell Ranch, historically one of the more prominent ranches in the area. Austin Hartzell, grandson of the Hartzell Ranch’s founder, was now renting the land under the terms of a tenuous monthly lease, which made it nearly impossible for Austin to gainfully manage his herd. LCSLO recognized that cattle, used properly, are an important tool for grassland ecology and fire suppression. LCSLO wanted to try to find a way to retain the excellent ranch management that Austin was providing but needed to secure his long-term ability to manage his herd sustainably or Austin would need to find a new occupation.

The Conservation Fund began negotiations with the landowner who simply wanted to sell quickly for the highest price possible. We proposed buying the land using our own Revolving Fund and then assisting LCSLO with obtaining the funds necessary to, in turn, buy it from us. We purchased the property in May 2020 and then worked hard with the terrific staff of LCSLO to secure the funds to pay us back.

As part of the push between May and December 2020, LCSLO created an amazing video to show supporters why Santa Rita is worth saving. One year later I still enjoy watching it and remembering how we worked as a team to secure this land, launch the fundraising campaign and pull it all off by the end of 2020.

This was a new model for working with land trusts in California and I was eager to establish it as a template for other great projects in the state. So often, critical land is for sale and government acquisition grants are likely, but it may be months or years before those grants can be processed. If The Conservation Fund is not able to step in quickly, the conservation opportunity is lost. Every dollar invested in our Revolving Fund goes directly to protecting land, over and over. By recycling these dollars we can make bigger and faster conservation impacts with our partners.

During our ownership, I got to know Austin Hartzell and his family a bit. He cared deeply about the ranch and was cheering us on to come up with the money needed to see it protected. It was his dream that his children and theirs would be able to visit, work and enjoy the legacy of their family ranch.

Photo by Steve Hobbs.

In December 2020, through creativity and determination, we and LCSLO were able to find the funds necessary for LCSLO to buy the land from us. That payment went back into our Revolving Fund for reinvestment in future projects. The grateful community of San Luis Obispo County is already holding festivals to benefit Santa Rita Ranch and soon it will be open to more visitors.

When I called Austin to let him know that we’d succeeded, and he would be able to ranch Santa Rita as part of LCSLO’s permanent conservation ownership, there was no response at first. Then his voice cracked as he said, “thank you” and he sent the picture below to express his family’s gratitude.

Photo courtesy Austin Hartzell.

After the call, I thought about my own family’s farm in Iowa. Finances forced my mom and her brother to sell some 20 years ago to someone who knocked down the house built in 1919. That house held so many memories for so many generations and it was obliterated in seconds just so they could plant a little more corn. Just before it was sold, I drove back to the farm and filled an old jar with some dirt. That jar is with me in my car wherever I go.

I think we all hunger for a sense of place. I think it’s an essential component of being human. I pull out that picture of Austin and his family from time to time. Their smiles reflect mine and I think of what a great job I have where I work with a tireless team making dreams come true. There are more great icons of California’s natural legacy out there to protect. Thanks to all of YOU who support The Conservation Fund, it is deeply appreciated.

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Written by

Steve Hobbs

Steve Hobbs is The Conservation Fund’s California State Director. Steve joined The Conservation Fund in 2012, and he has nearly three decades of conservation experience working for non-profit organizations and government around the country. A hallmark of Steve’s work has been finding conservation solutions that allow for economic development. This entails everything from developing conservation strategies for working lands to integrated compensatory mitigation projects. In his free time, Steve’s interests include fishing, bird hunting, baseball and flying.