The nearly 25,000-acre Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve at Point Conception is a singular place.
Located on the elbow of the California coast, this is where the cold-water currents of the northern Pacific mingle with the warmer waters of the Santa Barbara Channel and cattle ranches rub shoulders with celebrity compounds. Some call it the last perfect place in California.
The Chumash called the area home for more than 10,000 years before being forcibly removed by Spanish colonizers in the 1700s. Spanish missionaries lost ground to Americans in the late 1800s, and cattle rancher Bill Bixby bought the land in 1913.
As housing developments and freeways proliferated nearby, this vast stretch of coast stayed largely intact for a century, used only by grazing cattle, the Bixby family, and the occasional surfer. A hedge fund held the land, briefly, but decided not to develop. Locals and conservationists from all over the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when, in 2017, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased the land, thanks to a $165-million philanthropic gift from tech entrepreneurs Jack and Laura Dangermond.
Now, the preserve is a safe haven for wildlife and a living laboratory for scientific research, environmental education, and cultural preservation.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management Dean Steve Gaines. “Dangermond is one of the most important conservation sites in the world. Our scientists and students are thrilled to have the chance to protect and learn from this magnificent place.”
The Preserve’s unusual geography gives rise to uniquely rich marine and terrestrial habitats. Stretching from the coast to the Santa Ynez Mountains, Dangermond includes chaparral, grassland, oak woodlands, coastal scrub, and closed-cone pine along eight miles of wild coastline. Those habitats support close to 700 plants and animal species, 13 of which are threatened or endangered. The waters off Point Conception are the site of a major marine reserve, where gorgonian corals, elephant seals, gray whales, kelp forests, and sea otters thrive.
An ambitious collaboration
The Bren School and TNC have a long history of collaboration, but Dangermond represents the most ambitious project to date. TNC Dangermond Preserve Lead Scientist Mark Reynolds recalls that, once the purchase was settled, they knew they wanted to bring in the Bren School. “The Bren School was our first call. We knew they could bring top-level faculty and talented students to the project.”
TNC also saw the opportunity to include archeologists, evolutionary biologists, and the local Chumash. “Not only is there a detailed record of climate history here, we have a detailed archeological record, and the cultural history and understanding that goes with that. We want to learn from this history and apply it. We are forging an authentic partnership with the Chumash, who will play an important role in determining how the site evolves,” said Reynolds.
An evolving map
In addition to their philanthropic investment, the Dangermonds bring advanced tech capabilities to the partnership. The Dangermonds founded the world-leading geographic information system company Esri, which makes mapping software that allows scientists to observe and analyze long-term geographical trends. Using Esri technology, UCSB and Bren scientists will be able to explore a wide range of environmental challenges at Dangermond and around the world.
“The Dangermond Preserve represents an amazing scientific collaboration. We have the Dangermonds as a funder and technology partner; we have TNC, known for solving real conservation problems; and we have UCSB and the Bren School, which has a great record of ecological conservation science,” said Dr. Kelly Caylor, Director of UCSB’s Earth Research Institute and a Professor at the Bren School.
A gift from the Dangermonds also established a $1 million endowed Chair in Conservation Studies at UCSB. The future holder of the chair will play a crucial role in research at the Preserve.
A philanthropic catalyst
The Zegar Family Foundation has proven to be another key partner. Their funding has already supported three Bren-led research projects based on the Preserve.
“The Zegar Family Foundation provided the catalyst to start making things happen. They helped us start sending students out into the field to collect data,” said Caylor.
Founded by Charles Zegar and his wife, Merryl Snow Zegar, the Zegar Family foundation is a generous supporter of UCSB. Their investment in Dangermond reflects their current philanthropic focus on the environment.
“They funded projects that are intellectually interesting and meaningful to the field,” said Caylor. "Graduate students can build a thesis — and a career— around these projects.”
Each of the projects is designed to measure the resiliency of various natural systems at the Preserve.
- Using thermal cameras mounted on drones, Kelly Caylor’s Ph.D. student Bryn Morgan is mapping vegetation temperature, as a way to highlight which areas are suffering from drought and other conditions.
- Scott Jasechko’s lab is measuring the age of ground water at the Preserve by analyzing its chemical signatures, as a way to tell which water sources are renewable.
- Dean Steve Gaines’ lab is monitoring biodiversity off the shores of Point Conception by analyzing the water’s environmental DNA.
An abundance of carnivores
The National Geographic Society is also part of the partnership, providing partial funding for the noted wildlife biologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant to lead carnivore research at the Preserve.
"As a National Geographic Explorer, Rae’s research has advanced our understanding of how humans influence the behavior and ecology of carnivores," said Alexander Moen, chief explorer engagement officer at the National Geographic Society. "In partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Bren School, we are thrilled to continue supporting Rae's work to protect the wildlife that call the coastal ecosystems in Southern California home."
Wynn-Grant works side by side with colleagues from TNC, Esri, and Bren School Master’s students, using cameras and tracking systems to capture images of mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, foxes, and coyotes. On the coast, they have already observed marine mammals including seals, sea lions, elephant seals, and great white sharks.
“Predators are really hard to study. Now we have access to satellite tracking systems and photo monitoring systems that show you when a bear walks by. These big data science tools have opened up so many solutions,” said Gaines.
“Just because we can see them now doesn’t mean they will be able to survive into the future,” said Wynn-Grant. “My research will help us understand what needs to happen to protect the large carnivores in the area.”
A convergence of communities
The Dangermond Preserve’s significance stretches far beyond its role in protecting wildlife. For the Chumash, the Preserve represents thousands of years of history and a new opportunity for the community to re-engage with the area.
Brian Holguin is doctoral candidate in archeology at UCSB and a member of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. He has spent many hours at Dangermond as a researcher. Now, as the Preserve’s archeological research advisor and cultural liaison, he and other members of his tribe are helping to guide the site’s evolution and engagement with the descendants of the land.
“Point Conception is highly significant to my tribe. It’s a cultural oasis. Many of us in the Santa Ynez band are direct descendants of those who lived here and in the adjacent areas for thousands of years,” said Holguin.
Holguin sees the preserve from a unique perspective.
“As an archeologist, I’ve had the opportunity to see every facet and corner of the Chumash home world. It is fascinating because I am also exploring the history of my people.”
Holguin notes that partnerships between the Chumash and white communities have not always been mutually beneficial, but he’s optimistic that this collaboration’s novel approach will bring something positive to all the stakeholders.
“Usually, when we are approached on a project, it’s for compliance with state or federal laws. It’s obligatory. In contrast, TNC’s Dangermond team aims to restore indigenous activity on the Preserve. It’s been an inclusive process. They are open to our input and want to get us out there on our ancestral land –not just as visitors. We are actively working together to figure out how both groups can benefit,” said Holguin.
This multifaceted collaboration will continue to grow and evolve in the coming years, driven by science, indigenous community priorities, and the urgent need to address climate change.
“It’s clear that no one entity can do this on their own,” said Caylor. “By bringing universities, nonprofits, corporations, and indigenous communities together at Dangermond, we are forming the basis for a new generation of conservation science.”
The UCSB Bren School would like to thank and credit these photographers for their contribution to this article: Matthew Davis, Peter Montgomery, Bill Marr, Mary Gleason, as well as The Nature Conservancy and Esri for their image contributions.