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Preserving Wild California: Program Assessment


Steven L. Yaffee, Sheila K. Schueller and Julia M. Wondolleck


Overview of the Preserving Wild California Program

Preserving Wild California (PWC), a program of Resources Legacy Fund Foundation (RLFF), was a five-year, $150 million program designed to preserve California’s wild lands and rivers, and to ensure their permanent protection by investing in systematic acquisitions of land and fostering supportive policies, organizations, and constituencies.


RLFF was entrusted by donors to develop a long-term comprehensive strategy that would maintain the character and value of protected wild lands and rivers while seeking to strengthen and expand protection of additional priority areas, ensuring that future generations will benefit from the value of crucial ecosystem services, as well as the important solace that California’s wild places provide. They designed PWC to create and catalyze innovative approaches; invest in organizations and efforts that could become models for success; address immediate as well as future needs and threats; support collaborative efforts to advance wild land protection; and build broad, sustainable constituencies and coalitions that span partisan, age, ethnic, geographic, and economic boundaries.

Program Assessment

Between 2003 and 2008, the Preserving Wild California program funded more than 450 projects
involving approximately 160 grantees and ranging across seven ecological regions in California.
What activities did it fund? What has it accomplished? What has been its impact? What
strategies have been most effective? What challenges has it faced? What lessons does it offer
for future efforts to protect and restore California wildlands?

To answer these questions, we carried out an external assessment of the Preserving Wild
California (PWC) program. Our work looked back at the projects and organizations funded by
PWC to evaluate the impacts of the PWC investments and looked forward in deriving lessons
from the PWC experience for future programs. We used data that analyzed the program from
multiple geographic scales: statewide, regional or focal area, and individual grantees. We
reviewed an extensive set of grant documents, used a grant database established and maintained
by RLFF to track their grants, built a parcel-level database to analyze land acquisitions, and
carried out interviews with 64 respondents, including staff, grantees and statewide observers.

The Bottom Line

As external evaluators, our mission is usually achieved by providing critique and finding the
imperfections of a program. In PWC, however, there is much, much more to laud than to lament
in both the way that the program was administered and its on-the-ground impacts. Part of the
reason the program was successful lies in the strategic, pragmatic and adaptive way that RLFF
implemented grantmaking. Indeed, many viewed the program as a model that other
philanthropic organizations should use. Even the most critical of interviewees felt that the
program was a “huge gift” to conservation in California.

Overall, PWC was very successful in the areas of acquisitions and organizational capacitybuilding,
particularly in the Desert, North Coast and Sierra Nevada regions. Their purchase of
inholdings within, adjacent to and between existing wilderness and other protected areas
expanded protection and “cleaned up” a number of wilderness study areas to increase the
likelihood that they would be designated as wilderness. By strategically focusing on corridors
linking ecologically-significant areas, the impact of an acquisition extends beyond the acres
purchased and dollars spent.

PWC investments contributed significantly to a transformation of the California wilderness
policy debates from a polarized, nonproductive state into a bipartisan, more focused set of battles
that produced legislation designating more than a million acres of wilderness in the Northern part
of the state, Riverside County and the Eastern Sierra. They also helped conservation
organizations play defense against a set of anti-conservation proposals. They brought critical
strategic thinking to a variety of places in California, keeping an eye on how disparate pieces fit
together and helping grantees to stay focused on the end goals, while building up the
organizational infrastructure that enables sustained action. They produced a number of key
studies and plans that will guide and empower conservation actions in the future.


PWC achievements in the areas of restoration and long term constituency-building were less
significant. They funded much less restoration activity, so it is not surprising that there is less to
report. They had mixed success in their constituency-building work, even while recognizing its
long-term nature. Work on mobilizing nontraditional supporters for wilderness bills was very
strong and community-based work in a number of key places in the state – most prominently, the
Sierra, the Desert and the North Coast – should help to transform the “us versus them” dynamic
often associated with environmental activism. While building support for wildlands protection in
the Latino population is an important long-term need, the impact of PWC efforts to do so in
Southern California and the Central Valley was more mixed, though part of that had to do with
the explicit focus of the program on wildlands and its design as a five-year program.

We believe that the overall PWC story gives RLFF and California conservationists a great deal
to be proud of. The lessons from this program about strategy and impact should be distributed
broadly. The pieces of the program create a colorful tapestry that can be used to help weave a
stronger fabric of conservation action across California and other states.

The comprehensive external assessment of the PWC program can be viewed here.

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