As conservation director, she protected 18,000 acres of land — and much more
Wendy Eliot, retiring after serving 21 years as conservation director of Sonoma Land Trust, was born with an appreciation for land conservation in her blood. Landscape architect Charles Eliot (1859−1897), brother of her great grandfather, established the first land trust organization in the United States in 1891 in Massachusetts. “He believed everyone should have access to nature,” says Wendy. “This was during the Industrial Revolution and Charles thought people needed open space close to urban areas.”
For that very reason, four generations and 130 years later, Wendy convinced Sonoma Land Trust to pivot from solely protecting large rural properties to working to acquire the Santa Rosa Southeast Greenway in the heart of the city and to save the Sonoma Developmental Center land for the surrounding community. “I have to admit, I’ve always loved having Charles Eliot’s vision as part of my legacy,” says Wendy.
She also inherited a love of the land from her parents, the late Ted and Pat Eliot, well known in Sonoma County for protecting the land in their own ways. Ted, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, was one of the key proponents for passing the sales tax measure that created Sonoma County Ag + Open Space and Pat was a co-founder of LandPaths. But their biggest contribution, by far, was their daughter, Wendy, who has protected more than 18,000 acres around the county during her tenure at the Land Trust, and whose imprint on the San Pablo Baylands, in particular, includes the 1,000 acres at Sears Point restored to tidal marsh and another 10,000 acres in the planning phase.
Impact on Sonoma County
After graduate school, Wendy worked for the California Coastal Conservancy (SCC), the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Capitol Land Trust in Olympia, Washington, before she and her family returned to the Bay Area. She became Sonoma Land Trust’s eighth staff member in 1998.
“It’s hard to imagine many people having left such a mark on Sonoma County like the one Wendy has realized over the years,” says Eamon O’Byrne, executive director, Sonoma Land Trust. “I’m in awe of her accomplishments and the plans she is leaving to achieve significantly more land acquisition and restoration. What she has set in place will help our community deal with climate change and also get more people out on the land.”
“Wendy has had one of the most significant environmental careers of anyone I have known while working in the field for over 40 years,” says Neal Fishman, former Sonoma Land Trust board chair and retired deputy executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy. “She is a bright light, not only for her skill, patience and dedication that so often has paid off with extraordinary land conservation projects, but for her sense of humor and fun. She is a joy to be around and will be missed by the entire Bay Area conservation community.”
Along with her groundbreaking work in the Baylands, also resulting in the new 2.5-mile section of Bay Trail being named the “Eliot Trail” in her honor, her other favorite acquisition is Tolay Creek Ranch. She crafted the deal for purchasing this 1,665-acre ranch in 2007 and, after the stewardship team performed extensive restoration work along Tolay Creek, Wendy transferred it in 2017 to Regional Parks to expand Tolay Lake Regional Park, making it the largest park in the system.
“Wendy has been a mentor and inspiration to generations of conservation professionals,” says Bert Whitaker, director, Sonoma County Regional Parks. “Her gift is her grace and practicality conserving countless thousands of acres that are forever protected and cherished by our community. Thank you!”
She also acquired 1,000-acre Haire Ranch on Skaggs Island, which unlocked the door to restoring 4,000 acres of wetlands; saved the summit of Sonoma Mountain for the public to access; protected key properties in the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor to retain wildlife movement; and raised $54 million dollars for these and numerous other land conservation projects.
“Throughout her tenure at Sonoma Land Trust, Wendy has been a cornerstone of the land conservation community in Sonoma County,” says Bill Keene, general manager, Sonoma County Ag + Open Space. “Smart, passionate and indefatigable, Wendy has truly helped to shape the landscape of our region and we are all beneficiaries of her tireless efforts to preserve what we love about Sonoma County. Her legacy is undeniable and is visible in the scenic vistas, rolling grasslands, oak woodlands and pristine natural areas throughout our county — protected forever for us now, and for future generations.”
Other accomplishments of which she’s most proud include helping to grow the organization from eight to 27 staff members and leading the charge to become an accredited land trust that received the National Award of Excellence last year.
During Wendy’s tenure, the organization moved from accomplishing one-off projects to putting together large, connected systems. “Under her conservation leadership, the organization evolved to encompass a sense of what’s happening on those acres and how they are contributing to the landscape for wildlife, people and water to create more resiliency over time,” adds O’Byrne.
Wendy forged a strong acquisitions team of talented and knowledgeable staff. John McCaull, who joined the Land Trust in 2013, is being promoted to land acquisition director. John, who is also an attorney and former lobbyist, has managed key projects, such as the Sonoma Developmental Center and McCormick Ranch, and has led the organization’s campaigns for major funding measures, like AA for the Bay and M for Parks. In addition, while Wendy’s last day on staff was October 16, she is continuing on as a consultant through March to ensure a smooth transition and to handle some special projects.“I have loved my time at Sonoma Land Trust and the opportunity to work with landowners and colleagues throughout the county who share a love of Sonoma County,” says Wendy. “We face unprecedented challenges — for Sonoma Land Trust and the planet. Nonetheless, I’m confident that under Eamon’s leadership and with our brilliant staff, partners and supporters, we will continue to save land and focus on the important challenges, like climate change, that face us.”