Based in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, The Wildlands Conservancy (TWC) is one of the largest conservation agencies on the West Coast. The group’s stated mission is “to preserve the beauty and biodiversity of the earth,” and to fund outdoor education programs for low-income, inner-city youth.
Acting as a middleman between landowners and the federal government, TWC negotiates and buys up property that it later “donates” to the government, which in turn agrees that it will allow little or no development on the land; the government then reimburses the group for its efforts. Since its 1995 founding, TWC has spent between $85 and $90 million to acquire 678,000 acres in Southern California.
One TWC-brokered deal led to the largest sale of private land in American history. In 1999, the group teamed up with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to buy 640,000 acres in the Mojave Desert from the Catellus Development Corporation, the former real estate arm of the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad. The land was then donated to the BLM for the creation of the Mojave National Preserve. CounterPunch reports that Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who crafted the Desert Wildlands Act that enabled the historic land deal, has received over $150,000 in campaign donations from Catellus.
According to the Los Angeles Times, TWC soon began snatching up “and swapping real estate with the gusto of a 19th century land baron” to prevent future development. Among TWC’s other notable transactions over the years have been the following: In 1995, TWC bought 70 square miles of land so that it could link the San Bernardino, San Jacinto and Big Horn Mountains with Joshua Tree National Park. In 1996, the group bought a 97,000-acre cattle ranch near Los Angeles, where a builder had planned to erect thousands of luxury homes, and renamed it the Wind Wolves Preserve; it is now the West Coast’s largest privately owned nature preserve.
TWC has lobbied hard to entice the California State Legislature to assist in funding its conservation efforts. As a result, the group received $3 million from the state in 2001..
TWC was founded in 1995 by environmentalist David Myers, a native Californian who sold his house and woodworking business, including 640 acres of desert land near Yucca Valley, to bankroll the group. Today TWC’s largest benefactor is its co-founder David Gelbaum, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, has donated “at least $250 million” to the group and its sister organization, the Wildlands Endowment Fund.
Gelbaum and his brother Daniel, who sits on TWC’s Board, have a long history of donating to Democratic political candidates and organizations, including: Brian Baird, David Bonior, Barbara Boxer, Bill Bradley, Bill Clinton, Maurice Hinchey, John Kerry, Loretta Sanchez, Debbie Stabenow, Paul Wellstone, the California Democratic State Central Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In addition to his donations to TWC, Gelbaum has given some $100 million to the Sierra Club, whose Executive Director Carl Pope is also a TWC Board member. A staunch supporter of expanded rights for illegal immigrants, Gelbaum in 1994 warned Sierra Club officials that if they supported Proposition 187 — the ballot initiative that threatened to deny public education and healthcare to illegal immigrants — “they would never get another dollar from me.” Gelbaum donated over $180,000 to the anti-Prop 187 campaign; when the measure passed, he then donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to civil rights lawyers who eventually got the measure struck down.
In fiscal year 2000-2001, TWC revenues exceeded $20 million. In recent years, the respective values of TWC lands donated to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have been as follows: $2,734,598 (2003); $2,387,670 (2002); $7,954,464 (2001); and $5,407,842 (2000).
TWC has received funding from the E. Payne and Seba B. Payne Foundation; the Harry C. Trexler Trust; the Reidler Foundation; the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, and the William Penn Foundation.