Joe Edmiston

Working Amid Pressures

Recorded: July 27, 2012

Imagine the Los Angeles region without open spaces such as the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Topanga State Park or the Marvin Braude Mullholland Gateway Park. Joe Edmiston's Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has preserved over 69,000 acres of open space since 1980.

Joe Edmiston was a young firebrand when he became the inaugural director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in 1980. He had learned a lot from his parents’ early involvement with the Los Angeles chapter of The Nature Conservancy and adopted much of his mother’s steely persistence. For three decades, he has been one of the most important Public Trust defenders in California, protecting public access to the state’s beaches. His most recent fight has been against the City of Malibu’s effort to ban public camping along the coast and reduce campsites on state park land, such as Malibu Creek State Park, for fear of fire. Typical of many celebrity-enhanced conservation victories in Southern California, Ramirez Canyon, where the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has its headquarters, was once owned by Barbra Streisand. It is at the end of a wealthy neighborhood street that Mr. Edmiston works to increase and protect public access to public lands. Mr. Edmiston has been facing lawsuits since Ramirez Canyon became a park, but he continues to offer public tours and provide a summer camp for organizations serving children with disabilities.

Huey Johnson: You’ve had a position that very few resource managers have taken or say you’ve been able to take a position and that is to exist in a very difficult political setting. Los Angeles, the rich suburbs of Los Angeles and here you are doing what needs to be done with a clear eye and a firm resolve, etcetera. How have you survived?

Joe Edmiston: With great difficulty. Well actually that’s not true. There’s enough support counterbalancing all of that politics. There’s a huge amount of support for open space and proximity to nature and you know I think that people in Northern California for example, the environmental establishment doesn’t realize the extent to which there is that kind of support. Down here it’s more under the surface, but when you have an opportunity to protect something that means something to people, to provide these opportunities all sorts of interesting, exciting things come up that you never expect it. When you think “oh the political clouds are so dark right now, how can we survive?” Then somebody will call me up and say “well here, can I call somebody? Can I help?”

Huey Johnson: Do you have confidence that this patrimony in public trust is going to last?

Joe Edmiston: It will last as long as people have aversion to things that are ugly and morally bad. And you know a lot of people in our generation are concerned that that kind of concern is not present, although young people that I talk to have it maybe more than we did in their – So it’s very heartening, but there’s an example where right now a open space measure purchased an old oil field and the Chevron sold the oil field because at 9 dollars a barrel back in you know 20 years ago didn’t make any money. Now, because they can use fracking and all these new technologies the oil company comes back and says to a municipality, should I name them? City of Whittier, to be right out there and that city has a 65 million dollar general fund per year. They will make out of this deal minimum 80 million dollars a year. So they could actually become a no tax city and when the city council voted for this, of course the people around the oil field were horrified. They said “we thought we had a park here,” but the rest of the city said “hey, no taxes.” So those are the kinds of things that I worry about because – and the Public Trust doctrine. Public Trust doctrine is not a panacea. It emerged from the idea that if you’re going to drill for oil in the tidelands, then the public should get that benefit. So we have all these you know Huntington Beach and Long Beach, we have all these oil drilling operations. So my concern is that somebody will say “oh well, as long as you use it for a public purpose, as long as the money goes back into the public thisk, ah, its okay.” So that’s a concern that I have, that the economics of resource exploitation may very well start to overwhelm us. And when it was something as bad as a strip mine, sure, you can see that. Strip Mine National Park, no, we don’t want that. But when it’s as insidious as you can do it from a mile away and you go underground and you frack and you can’t see it on the surface, but of course what’s happening is the ground water is being contaminated. I am concerned about impacts that are not necessary so visible but could be just as deleterious.

Huey Johnson: If you were starting out today, what you recommend or what would you recommend young people wanting to train to be effective as you’ve been in your career?

Joe Edmiston: I think good training is starting out with a nonprofit organization. Start out where you have to be innovative and where you don’t get used to making a big salary. I mean that sounds kind of flip but it really is true. If you have the expectations and what is so sad I think about right now, we’ve saddled our educational system, has provided much broader education than anybody expected but it’s come at the expense of you graduate from college, you graduate from law school and you’ve got $100, $200 thousand dollars worth of debt. If you have this debt and you have you know the best and the brightest lawyers, they’re going to get sucked up where they want to give you $250 thousand a beginning associate. The public sector can’t ever match that and I think that if you grow up in a, or start your career in a nonprofit kind of a situation there’s a certain ethos that develops and then it’s easier to transition into a, into a public position. So I would really hope there are more internships I think that there is a provision, a good provision that you get some of your student loans forgiven if you work for government for a nonprofit.

Huey Johnson: That’s a good idea.

Joe Edmiston: And so you know but that only is a certain fraction of the forgiven. I’d love to se the whole thing forgiven. If you do 5 to 10 years, good organization because you start in the government, you’re going to learn the bureaucratic way of doing things. If you start at Trust for Public Land, if you start at one of these other organizations, then you’ve got to learn how to scrap and survive. Everybody says you know you have to work with these developers isn’t so odious and in the one thing that I realize, you can’t really work with somebody if you don’t like them. If you fundamentally hate somebody…-

Huey Johnson: Great bit of wisdom.

Joe Edmiston: And so enviro’s come and say “oh, I had this horrible meeting with them.” And I look at it as a business man has a bottom line and if you have a bottom line and the business man has a bottom line, you already have something in common. You don’t really need the hearts and minds; you need the signature on the deed. And as long as that becomes something then you have a basis. Well this property, Barbara Streisand, a donation. A hugely beautiful property and was very happy to donate and very generously donated this property to us. It used to be a barn here and now it’s a nice meadow and we use this for special needs kids’ camp. It’s flat, we have a nice disabled/handicap trail that goes back about 300 yards and the whole campus really is very well situated for people who have mobility problems. Basically flat, we have – you wouldn’t normally want to have a trail that was paved with brick but if you have mobility issues in a wheelchair, it’s a perfect trail to have. So this is sort of one of our little jewels here and we can do this because it’s technically outside the city of Malibu. So the city of Malibu’s ordinance against overnight camping doesn’t apply.

Joe Edmiston: Who would have thunk that over the course of 30 some years we would have spent almost ¾ of a billion dollars on the Santa Monica Mountains? Nobody. First off we told them that, we didn’t know either, we had told them the legislature would never have passed it.

Huey Johnson: Developers would have done you in.

Joe Edmiston: Yeah, exactly.

Huey Johnson: How many acres, do you know?

Joe Edmiston: 69,000.

Huey Johnson: Suburbs of Los Angeles.

Joe Edmiston: Since 1980.

Huey Johnson: You really have done a remarkable job and there should be a book written about it. When I say you were right in there with the…

Joe Edmiston: No I’ve said, I’ve said I’m not releasing any information until the expiration of all statutes of limitations, so no book.