Calif. conservation groups feel effects of smaller budgets

The Sacramento BeeOctober 10, 2011 

Nonprofit conservation groups have preserved tens of thousands of acres of land in California — wild places where both hikers and animals roam. Now, some of them say the economic slump could force them to scale back.

Others say lean budgets make it harder for them to scrutinize land use proposals for environmental effects – a key role such groups play in the state's push-pull development process.

Most groups don't like to talk about their financial difficulties, but one, the American River Conservancy, recently took the unusual step of going public. In an email to members and supporters, the group confessed that "times are hard" and it needs to raise $250,000 by year-end or it will be forced to cut programs in 2012.

"What is happening to our organization is happening to a lot of organizations. We're just being honest about it," said Alan Ehrgott, the conservancy's executive director.

A major factor is the squeeze on government programs that provide money for land acquisition and education. In addition, private foundations that give grants to environmental groups have seen their endowments shrink substantially as the stock market has struggled.

"Every group really has got to focus on what they do well, what their core priorities are," said Tim Little, executive director of the Oakland-based Rose Foundation, which donates to environmental groups and is also helping coach them through tough times.

Like a number of other land groups operating in the Sacramento region, the American River Conservancy has worked on setting aside land for both recreation and wildlife habitat.

The conservancy has helped preserve 12,000 acres in the American River watershed, particularly along the south fork in the Coloma area. Among these projects was the acquisition last year of Gold Hill Ranch, site of the Wakamatsu Colony, the first Japanese settlement in North America.

It also has built more than 27 miles of public recreation trails, including the new South Fork American River Trail, which opened last year between Salmon Falls Road and Highway 49.

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