Faces of Conservation: Dave Van Cleve

California parks capture the true flavor of the state—its biodiversity, topography and rich history.

Anza-Borrego Desert Slideshow

View images of the Anza-Borrego Desert and creatures that call this state park home.

Unabashed desert lover Dave Van Cleve plays the bluegrass upright bass, builds wood furniture for his grandchildren and for 10 days every summer rides his bike across America in 800-mile segments. An avid reader of Charles Darwin, he’s fascinated by the idea of using island biogeography to demonstrate the nexus between science and religion. He talks to us about state parks, conservation and the Conservancy.

You’ve dedicated your entire career to conservation. How did you get started?

Dave Van Cleve:

The first Earth Day, in April 1970, was a seminal moment for me. I was a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, and it was like a light suddenly went on. I’d always been attracted to nature, but now I knew working with nature was what I had to do.

How did you decide on the Park Service?

Dave Van Cleve:

A friend of mine had graduated two years ahead of me and became a park ranger. He got to live in the redwoods, drive around in a truck. I thought, “You can get paid for that?” My first ranger job was at San Elijo State Beach in San Diego County. I could drive the entire park in eight minutes, so I started exploring the area’s desert state parks. At the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert, I could be out from 8 am to 5 pm and never see the same thing twice.

Why do our state parks matter?

Dave Van Cleve:

We’ve preserved the best parts of California for current and future generations. Parks weren’t established just anywhere. These places are truly unique to California—from Tahoe to the redwoods, from the beaches to the deserts. The parks preserve key historical events and locations like the Gold Rush, the Spanish missions, even Hearst Castle. Our parks capture the true flavor of the state—its biodiversity, topography and rich cultural past.

Your love of Anza-Borrego is well-known in the field. What sparks your passion?

Dave Van Cleve:

Its diversity: It goes from sea level to 6,000 feet in elevation. And its size: At some parks you get the feeling that people have hiked over every square foot, but here there are places no one has ever stepped foot before. You can take hikes on which you won’t see another human all day and may find something thrilling like a piece of petrified wood; a bone from a fossilized saber tooth, bear or camel; Native American rock art; or pottery shards. There’s so much still to be discovered here.

What have been your greatest successes at the parks?

Dave Van Cleve:

When I started, there was one ecologist in southern California; when I retired, there were 15. I showed that it was important to focus on the conservation side and not just the recreation side of the state parks’ mission, as important as recreation is. Also, I fought to get the resource management staff transferred from the centralized offices and into the field. Now ecologists, archaeologists and historians are housed at the parks themselves.

How does your work at the Conservancy impact state parks?

Dave Van Cleve:

These days when funds are so tight we assist the parks not only in acquiring important conservation lands, but in establishing the means to care for them as well. We also work to find common ground on sensitive issues. For instance, there was unresolved contention around off-road use at Desert Cahuilla. We brought everyone to the table and found a solution.

About the Interviewee

Dave Van Cleve is the Conservancy’s senior project director for the South Coast and Deserts Region. Prior to joining the Conservancy in 2004, he was with California State Parks for 32 years serving as a field ranger, park scientist and eventually district superintendent, managing five state parks including the state’s largest, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.


x animal

Sign up for Nature eNews!

Sign Up for Nature e-News

Learn about the places you love. Find out
how you can help.

Thank you for joining our online community!

We’ll be in touch soon with more Nature Conservancy news, updates and exciting stories.

Please leave this field empty

I'm already on the list!

Read our privacy policy.