Tom and Mary Lou Edwards declined to comment directly on their motives for selling the land to the Nature Conservancy. But Kevin Knowles of Conservation Land Group, a for-profit agency specializing in brokering large land deals with conservation in mind, speaking for the Edwardses said, "They wanted to get out of the property with the cattle-ranching business being so tough in San Diego. But they didn't want to see it subdivided. TNC made a good offer, and they decided to go with them."
There wasn't a wide-open bidding period for the property. "We really only showed it to a handful of interested buyers," Knowles explains. "There were several private parties who were interested in buying it and who had made offers, actually. That's when the Nature Conservancy came in with an offer that was ultimately accepted."
Knowles described the $9,000,000 up-front, all-cash sum the Conservancy paid Tom and Mary Lou Edwards as "market value" and said it was "roughly the same as the other offers we received." The Edwards decided to sell to the Nature Conservancy because, Knowles explains, "They saw them as being very reputable, very credible. They saw in them a history of closing large transactions around the state and felt that was their best bet. You worry about the buyer not coming through on their commitments when you're talking about this much land and money. But the Nature Conservancy did things perfectly. All the timelines were met, and I know that Tom and Mary Lou were very happy in the end. Deep down, it probably meant a lot to them that it would stay relatively the way it is now."
What's next for the Santa Ysabel Ranch hasn't been settled yet. The Nature Conservancy traditionally manages the land it purchases but, "In California," Leahy explains, "we've kind of moved away from that model to where we suspect that there are local organizations that are much better equipped in the long run, in the 50-, 100, 200-year sense, to manage these lands. We do, however, want to make sure that the reasons we've bought the land, the specific animals and plants, are monitored and managed appropriately. One way we do that is by developing and creating collaborative partnerships that hopefully will turn into long-term institutions for management of these lands. That might be with a public agency; it could be county, state, or federal level. Or it could be with a private nonprofit organization or a combination of those. And, in addition to creating that local institution, we also try to inculcate into those partnerships certain principles for long-term management of the long-term resources."
Leahy points to the Santa Rosa Plateau outside of Murrieta in Riverside County as an example of this kind of cooperation. The Nature Conservancy co-manages that facility with Riverside County Parks, the Department of Fish and Game, and the Metropolitan Water District. It's open to the public for "passive public use" -- hiking, bird-watching, guided mountain biking, and horseback riding, but no camping, no hunting, no fishing. Leahy says this is the most probable future for the Santa Ysabel Ranch, though he can't say when it will happen. Right now, only Nature Conservancy members -- about 10,000 in San Diego County -- are allowed on the land but only as part of group trips organized by the Conservancy's recently opened office on Fifth Avenue between downtown and Hillcrest.
Still, selling the ranch to a private party is not out of the question. "In some cases," Leahy says, "we may acquire land and turn it back over to private land owners with a conservation easement -- that is, convenants and restrictions that the Nature Conservancy holds in perpetuity that describe, in a fairly detailed way, how we want to see the natural resources maintained and managed over time. We have partnerships around the country with farmers and ranchers and other property owners that are maintaining the property in a traditional, rural, agricultural, or ranching use. We have sold that property to them, subject to an easement that allows them to continue to do that because we see grazing as an important management tool. But we also have some prescriptions for times of year to move cattle out of certain areas, or it provides for setbacks from sensitive riparian areas or waterways. So there's a way we can actually conserve land and keep it in private ownership."