Birds of a Feather: The Bonds of Friendship are Driving Conservation in the Sierra
For Lee Lockie, supporting conservation means both investing in the future and delivering on a promise from the past.
Six years ago, Lee became the benefactor of the Johanson Foundation, a conservation fund created by her late friend and fellow birder, Dr. Paul Johanson. The two met on a birding trip in the 1990s, when Lee was working as an air quality scientist and Paul as an orthopedic surgeon. Their shared love of nature led them on many adventures, and before Paul passed away in 2013, he asked Lee to continue his conservation legacy through the foundation.
“He had confidence in me because I liked birds and understood the science behind what he was trying to do,” said Lee. “He was really sad that he couldn’t find the kind of project he was looking for during his lifetime. He told me what his mission was: to find riparian habitat and conservation properties to purchase and preserve.”
Shortly after Paul’s passing, Lee took a trip with TNC to the Sierra Nevada. “I thought, this is it! This is what he was looking for!” Through the Johanson Foundation, Lee helped TNC purchase a key conservation property in Sierra Valley and went on to invest $4 million to protect critical habitat across the region. She now serves on the governing council of the Northern Sierra Partnership—a coalition of five organizations, including TNC, that are working to conserve and restore the Northern Sierra—and supports conservation in other areas, including New Mexico.
Whether the project is big or small, Lee is gratified by a simple truth: Together, she and Paul have made a difference.
A Living Legacy at the Sierra Valley Preserve
When the Wenk family lost their beloved daughter and sister, Rebecca, to cancer in 2011, they wanted to honor her memory by supporting something she loved her entire life: nature.
Working with The Nature Conservancy, Feather River Land Trust and the Northern Sierra Partnership, the family established the Rebecca Wenk Nature Trail at the Sierra Valley Preserve. “The trail meanders beautifully around different habitats in the valley, passing by plants we knew were Rebecca’s favorites, including the California peony,” said Julia, Rebecca’s mother.
A dedicated botanist who worked for UC Berkeley and the California Academy of Sciences, Rebecca was a third generation scientist and hiker. As children, she and her two sisters developed an early love of nature while exploring the mountains of Switzerland, where their father, Rudy, a UC Berkeley geology professor, had hiked extensively as a youth. “With our daughters, we spent many summers in the Alps when I was doing field work there,” he said. “Climbing mountains, stopping to look at wildflowers and animals, and enjoying beautiful views instilled in our daughters an appreciation of nature.”
Now, visitors to the preserve can forever enjoy the trail and memorial bench that pay tribute to Rebecca and her passion for California’s unique plants and flowers. The Wenks hope this special place will inspire others to preserve natural areas like Sierra Valley from development. “If you destroy the environment, all this beauty is gone,” said Rudy.
It all started in the river, a conservation journey
Jon Goulden found his way to conservation by way of a river and a pair of waders. In the early 1980s, the now-retired Hewlett-Packard executive took up fly fishing after he and his wife, Kwok Lau, moved to California. He wanted to help preserve the natural landscapes he explored on fishing trips, and soon became a TNC donor. Three decades later, Jon serves on TNC’s California Leadership Council, and he and Kwok support numerous conservation projects.
“One of the things we really like about TNC is the idea of trying out new things,” he said. In 2020, they donated $1 million to launch the Acquisition Catalyst Fund, a grant-seeded investment tool that funds critical conservation projects and recycles capital to increase impact. The fund appealed to them not only because it multiplies the impact of every contribution, but because the pace of investment enables donors to see immediate benefits for nature, such as the purchase of land and water rights.
“It is important for people to feel like they are participating,” said Jon. “So many things happen at such a large scale, hundreds of millions of dollars, and it can be hard to feel connected to those. Innovations like this let people feel closer to the project.”
Being involved is central to Jon and Kwok’s approach to philanthropy. “You can wait until you die to fund the organizations you like, or maybe you do something ahead of time,” he said. “You can get a lot out of it.”
When Lila Michael thought about celebrating her bat mitzvah this year, she was sure about one thing: making a difference. She wanted to support a good cause, and nature was at the top of her list. At her ceremony, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lila asked her family and friends to donate to The Nature Conservancy in lieu of gifts. To date, the California Chapter has received $10,000 in contributions to honor Lila.
“It’s a good feeling to know that you’re helping,” she said. “It’s going to something that needs it more than me.”
Lila’s love of nature is rooted in the experiences she has had on family trips. From visiting waterfalls on Kauai to coming face-to-face with a whale while boating in Mexico, she is always up for exploring the natural world—especially the ocean. “Sea turtles are my favorite animal. I swam with them in Hawai‘i and I’ve also seen them hatching,” she said. “It’s stressful, you don’t want them to be eaten by the seagulls!”
Last year, Lila learned about climate change in school and was inspired by the activism of Greta Thunberg. Her bat mitzvah provided an opportunity to put her own passion for the environment to work. “You can’t just sit around. You can acknowledge it all you want, but nothing is going to change if you don’t take action.”
Conservation is often a long game. It requires that we invest in the future without the promise of a quick return. Trustee Charlene Kabcenell has made this kind of investment over nearly three decades as a TNC donor, and she’s seen impressive results much earlier than expected.
A case in point is the California Groundfish Project, a collaboration be- tween TNC and coastal fishing commu-nities that dates back to the early 2000s. Kabcenell, a retired vice president of software development at Oracle and the current president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alumni Association, followed the project from its inception. “
The groundfish fishery had basically collapsed, and fishers were in a dire state,” she said. “TNC and partners came in and helped restore not just the fishery but also the communities that depend on the economic prosperity a robust fishery provides.”
Recognizing that fishing communities were critical to achieving healthy oceans, TNC purchased fishing permits and collaborated with fishermen to find new ways to protect habitat and improve fishing practices.
In 2019, during the final stretch of the Our World campaign, we transferred the last of our fishing rights to newly established community fisheries trusts, putting stewardship responsibilities in the hands of local conservation leaders.
Now, less than 15 years after TNC purchased fishing rights, fish popula-tions are rebounding decades ahead of schedule, and extensive habitat protec-tions are in place.
“It was a long and difficult process,” said Kabcenell, “but it showed the best of TNC: its science-based and collaborative approach, creativity, innovation and just plain perseverance and hard work.”
Kabcenell is inspired by these outcomes not only as a conservationist and businesswoman but also as an outdoors enthusiast.
“I am an avid scuba diver, and I’ve seen firsthand how much our oceans have deteriorated,” she said. “I don’t think most people realize this because oceans look fine from the surface. That is why I want to do all I can to advocate for the oceans and keep them from being overlooked.”
An Enduring Legacy: Remembering Kerry Landreth Reed
TNC is fortunate to have many dedicated donors who are passionate about protecting the natural world. Some give money. Others give time. Some make introductions. Others give advice. Kerry Landreth Reed gave all that and more: she gave her whole self.
A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, Kerry spent many happy hours hiking, skiing, and angling with her loved ones. TNC’s preserve at the McCloud River was a favorite destination, and it became a focal point of her family’s philanthropy with us. In 2012, after conquering her first battle with breast cancer, Kerry set out to make her mark on the issues she cared about, including conservation. She co-founded—and led—the California Leadership Council, a group of business and philanthropic leaders who serve as TNC ambassadors. Her efforts paid off; the California Leadership Council is now one of TNC’s most important outreach and engagement programs.
Kerry never let anything get in the way of living life to the fullest, even the return of her cancer. Despite the long hours she spent at the hospital, she remained deeply engaged with TNC. In 2017, during the final months of Kerry’s life, we renamed our preserve at the McCloud River in her honor. We are proud to be part of her incredible conservation legacy and to continue the work she believed in so deeply.
“I’ve always felt that California provided a model for the world,” she said. "Whether the issue is fighting climate change, keeping our rivers flowing or protecting wildlife habitat, we are leading the way.”
Remembering Jack Weeden
As TNC celebrates 60 years in California, we honor the life of our friend and former board member Jack Weeden, one of our earliest and most dedicated supporters.
Growing up in Northern California in the 1930s and ’40s, Jack and his three brothers enjoyed exploring the natural world. They frequented the lush forests owned by family friends Heath and Marjorie Angelo—3,100 acres in Mendocino County that would later become the Angelo Coast Range Reserve, TNC’s first reserve in the state. During World War II, they held summer jobs at Yosemite, and Jack later hiked the John Muir Trail with his brothers Alan and Don.
Jack served on TNC’s California Board of Trustees for 17 years and generously supported our projects, making his final donation with a $2.3 million bequest. He remained a champion of nature into his 90s, welcoming TNC staff to tour his beautiful San Francisco garden and chat about environmental issues—a special experience for anyone lucky enough to be invited.
After Jack’s passing in March, we named an ironwood grove in his memory on our Santa Cruz Island Preserve, a place that was dear to his heart. It is one of the many ways we will remember Jack and his extraordinary commitment to conservation.
Angelo Coast Range Reserve
In 1959, the Angelos were at a crossroads. They owned 3,100 acres of pristine, old-growth forest in Mendocino County, but a new law forced property owners to pay taxes on the value of their timber whether or not they chose to harvest it. That’s when they approached TNC.
Today, the Heath and Marjorie Angelo Coast Range Reserve spans 7,660 acres and is operated by UC Berkeley.
“I’ve always been involved in the environmental world,” said Sally Liu, a scientist with TNC’s California Water Program. Liu came to conservation after 18 years at Tetra Tech, an environmental consulting and engineering firm. “The mission of protecting biodiversity, open space and habitat is something that strikes you at your core: your heart.”
Liu is a longtime donor and co-chair of TNC’s California Leadership Council, as well as a key member of the California groundwater strategy. “
TNC was the force in gaining protection for nature in California’s first law regulating groundwater. It was super exciting to be part of the groundwater team from the beginning, shap-ing the strategy to ensure that the law’s imple-mentation will actually protect our river and wetland ecosystems that rely on groundwater.”
Liu leveraged her experience with groundwater modeling from her days as a consultant and represented TNC on the Technical Advisory Group for one of the first groundwater sustain-ability plans developed under the new law.“
This work encapsulates why TNC is a best-in-class environmental organization. Our strategy relies on science, like the first-ever mapping of groundwater-dependent ecosystems; partner-ships with public agencies and conservation and environmental justice groups; and innovative solutions that we’re testing on the ground, like the new groundwater market.”
As a donor, Liu has funded projects ranging from forest conservation in Indonesia to water funds in Latin America. “
I love the global reach of TNC,” she said. “As a volunteer, I’m excited to be able to work on specific projects; but as a donor, I love the breadth of what we do.”
Fortunately, Liu is ready to keep fighting for a better future. “
This year has felt so cataclysmic, as we endure the smoke and fires in California, read about the fires in the Arctic and Amazon and watch the series of hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast. We need hope. We need optimism. Over the past decade, I’ve worked with so many TNC California staff, and their smarts and heartfelt commitment give me the strength to keep up the fight for nature in California and beyond.”
Generosity in Action: Celebrating the CLC Challenge
"I was struck by the question, ‘If not us, who?’” said Sally Liu, a scientist with TNC’s California Water Program and co-chair of the California Leadership Council (CLC), a group of volunteer leaders at TNC. “How can we ask others to do more, to give more, if we don’t lead the way?"
In early 2020, Sally and CLC co-chair Mike Green each pledged to give $1 million to TNC in the final months of the Our World Campaign. They challenged their fellow CLC members to help raise $5 million by June. The group not only met this challenge, they surpassed it. Together, they raised $7.4 million for nature, bringing the CLC’s contribution to more than $13 million over the seven-year campaign.
“The CLC knows how critical TNC's work is to the preservation and protection of the natural world,” said Mike. “Hopefully this reinforces how much we appreciate the passion and commitment of staff across the organization, and how strongly we believe in the work they do.”
The Sprague Family
Giving back may not be the official motto of the Sprague family, but it’s certainly their way of life. That includes actively supporting one of their greatest sources of joy: nature.
“We grew up immersed in and appreciating the wonders of nature,” said Ben Sprague, CEO at Earl Warren Showgrounds and a member of TNC’s California Leadership Council (CLC). “Nature teaches unique lessons you don’t always get elsewhere: humility, flexibility and a reverence for the interdependence and fragility of complex systems. As a family, our support of education, the arts and conservation is intricately and passionately tied to nature.”
The Sprague family became involved with TNC’s California Chapter in 1999, when Ben’s father, the late Dr. Norman F. Sprague III, joined our Board of Trustees. A prominent orthopedic surgeon and clinical instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Norm was a conservationist through and through. He championed a number of complex initiatives during his 15 years of board service, and with his wife, Marianne, and their family foundation, he established a scholarship to provide promising MBA students with conservation leadership training at TNC. He was passionate about work related to land connectivity, particularly safe-passage corridors for animals, as well as the preservation of Santa Cruz Island and the Monterey Bay fisheries. When Norm passed away unexpectedly in 2014, TNC Executive Director Mike Sweeney dedicated a previously unnamed mountain peak to him on our Santa Cruz Island Preserve. Today, Norm’s Peak remains a special tribute to a man who did so much for the island.
In recent years, the Sprague family — which includes Marianne, Ben and his sisters, and Norm’s three sisters and their families — have carried on Norm’s legacy through their support of conservation. During the Our World cam-paign, they were close partners in TNC’s efforts to establish the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve.
“I’ve never been more excited about anything in my life in terms of a conservation project. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Ben.
The Dangermond Preserve has the potential to move conservation in a promising new direction and take it into uncharted territories — and that is exactly the kind of visionary, large-scale project that appeals to the Spragues.
“As a family, our hope is to be net-positive in the geographic areas we inhabit,” said Ben. “Whether we are helping underprivileged kids have access to nature and science, setting aside land to protect a last-of-its-kind species or creating scholarships, our goal is to make a constructive difference.”
“The level of scientific knowledge at TNC impresses me,” says Francie Mitchell, a former chemist and international IT director at Clorox. “It exceeds my expectations.”
A TNC donor for more than three decades, Francie came onboard as a volunteer seven years ago, shortly after retiring. Since then, she has helped the California Chapter’s conservation and science teams with projects ranging from ocean protection to habitat connectivity. This includes supporting TNC’s Regional Conservation Investment Strategy Symposium, an annual gathering where public agencies and stakeholders share best practices to identify regional conservation priorities and guide development to avoid conflicts with nature.
“I was committed to TNC before, but through volunteering, I became even more committed. To actually see the work TNC does and the impact it makes just blew me away,” she says.
When Francie is not working alongside TNC colleagues, she enjoys biking and exploring the hiking trails near her home in Northern California. Knowing that she is helping to protect the natural world makes her adventures even sweeter. “I am a native Californian. The work that TNC is doing really helps preserve the California that I grew up in and that I love.”
Trustee Angela Nomellini Has Made a Splash in the World of Conservation
“How do I most like to connect with nature? I connect through my waders!” says Angela Nomellini, an enthusiastic fisher and member of TNC’s California Board of Trustees.
Angela and her husband, Ken Olivier, first discovered TNC after one of Ken’s fishing trips more than 20 years ago. Since then, they have generously invested in TNC’s conservation efforts around the world. They like to support conservation in “places where we live, where our lives touch down,” explains Angela. One of their greatest passions is the California Salmon and Steelhead Coalition, which works to recover salmon and trout populations across the state. The coalition is a partnership between TNC, California Trout, and Trout Unlimited, where Ken is a board member.
In addition to her role as a trustee, Angela is co-chair of the California Chapter’s Our World Campaign Committee and serves on both the global Our World Planned Giving Committee and the North America Advisory Cabinet. This June, her contributions were recognized at the Volunteer Leadership Summit, where she received TNC’s highest honor: the Oak Leaf Award for outstanding service.
“What keeps me coming back is the quality of the people I get to work with,” she says. “TNC is doing a lot of good work. Everybody working at TNC and the other donors I interact with are grade-A people.”