Tejon Ranch Company Attacks Conservation Partners

Owner of massive California landholding issues public statement lashing out at Tejon Ranch Conservancy and environmental signatories to Tejon Ranch conservation agreement.
Mule Deer, Tejon Ranch
Mule Deer, Tejon Ranch
Credit: Ben Teton

Owner of massive California landholding issues public statement lashing out at Tejon Ranch Conservancy and environmental signatories to Tejon Ranch conservation agreement.

Last week the non-profit Tejon Ranch Conservancy—created to oversee conservation of the 240,000 acres preserved under the landmark 2008 Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement (“Agreement” or “RWA”)—sued the Tejon Ranch Company for breaching its funding obligation to the non-profit conservancy. Procedurally, the Conservancy joined a lawsuit filed in early December by the Agreement’s environmental signatories—NRDC, National Audubon, Sierra Club, Planning and Conservation League, and Endangered Habitats League—to challenge the Company’s failure to make Advance Payments to the Conservancy. 

Last Friday the Tejon Ranch Company responded by issuing a rancorous press statement attacking not only the Conservancy’s legal action but the Conservancy itself—misrepresenting the legal process, the merits of the litigation, and the invaluable work of the organization over its twelve-year history.

As a member of the Conservancy board since its creation and its chair for almost a decade, I feel compelled to challenge the Company’s unbridled and unjustified public attack—an attack that contrasts sharply with the good work over the years of many Company representatives on the Conservancy’s board.

Sadly, its attempt to engage the media in undermining the Conservancy and its work reflects just how far the Company has retreated from its once enthusiastic endorsement of the conservation agreement when, in May 2008, its then-CEO Robert Stine called it “good for conservation, good for California and good for the company and its shareholders.” 

The Company’s dramatic about face and the allegations made to justify it are not only lamentable but demonstrably false. Consider just a few examples:

According to the Company, the Conservancy joined the lawsuit not to compel Advance Payments—its principal source of revenue—but as an “Eleventh Hour effort” instigated by plaintiffs to “salvage” and correct a “major error” and “sloppy,” “glaring,” “fatal defects” in their “defective” December 2nd complaint. In fact, the Conservancy’s filing—through an amended complaint—is a common legal process, undertaken as a matter of right by any aggrieved plaintiff for any reason. The board of directors of the Conservancy made the decision to sue, because the lawsuit involves legal issues central to its very existence.

On the merits, the Company doesn’t deny its obligation to make Advance Payments to support the Conservancy’s operations. But it attempts to justify its failure to comply by alleging that the Conservancy and environmental plaintiffs violated the RWA’s “non-opposition” clause, which prohibits their opposition to the Company’s development projects on the ten percent of the Ranch not protected by the Agreement. The release ignores the fact that the same provision explicitly exempts from the prohibition the very kinds of activities cited by the Company as a violation.

The Company’s most sweeping attack is its astonishing claim—without explanation—that the lawsuit filed by its conservation partners is actually an attempt to “evade years of mismanagement” and “the squandering of $11,000,000 in payments contributed by Tejon to date . . . .”

On the contrary, the Conservancy’s resources are devoted entirely to its conservation mission—protecting the conserved lands on Tejon Ranch, overseeing compliance with conservation easements, directing scientific research by Conservancy scientific staff or outside scientists and academic institutions, managing public access to the conserved lands, and conducting public education activities for school children and others, including in the Bakersfield area.

In fact, what the Company considers “squandering” has funded outstanding Conservancy staff and their operations resulting in, for example, more than 40 studies on Tejon Ranch on a variety of scientific topics in collaboration with colleges and universities (including MIT, UC Berkeley, and others), the discovery of species that are new to science or endemic to Tejon, quantifiable data showing the benefits of managed grazing in riparian areas (applicable to much of the American West and beyond), the exposure of students to field work in the living laboratory of Tejon Ranch, bringing thousands of Californians and others to explore its vast landscape, as well as introducing college-aged students to ecological and stewardship work through paid internships. All of this is in addition to the Conservancy’s core responsibilities of annual conservation easement monitoring of tens of thousands of acres, ongoing stewardship activities like invasive species removal and wildlife surveys, and drafting of encyclopedic Ranch-Wide Management Plan for Tejon Ranch.

Each of the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit, including the Conservancy, has devoted substantial effort for a decade and a half to negotiating and then implementing an agreement that is considered a landmark in California’s conservation history—an agreement that, if the Company doesn’t undermine it by noncompliance or specious attacks on conservation partners, will serve Californians and the state’s natural heritage for generations to come.

When the RWA was announced in 2008, the Tejon Ranch Company’s CEO endorsed that positive vision and celebrated the deal’s benefit to his shareholders. In the wake of his retirement in 2014, it now appears that the Company’s enthusiastic view of this historic conservation achievement may have retired with him.