Land Trust Honors Scientists

The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County awards Conservationist of the Year honors to Dr. Jodi McGraw and Dr. Chris Wilmers for their work on the Highway 17 wildlife crossing and other conservation projects.

by Diane Terry

Oct. 13, 2014—The Conservationists of the Year award has been a Land Trust annual tradition since 2007, when Diane Cooley received recognition for active involvement in Land Trust projects, including the donation of more than 1,000 acres under conservation easement. For the next six years, exceptional donors and funders received the title of Conservationist of the Year, as their contributions allowed Land Trust projects to thrive. This year, however, is a little different. In a first, this year’s award is going to two scientists.

Despite the trend change, the choice shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. According to Deputy Director Stephen Slade, award recipients need to have a longstanding history with the Land Trust along with a recent outstanding achievement. In this case, that recent work pertains to the Highway 17 wildlife crossing, the subject of a $1 million capital campaign launched by the Land Trust in early September with a Dec. 31 deadline.

“We didn’t set out to pick scientists,” says Slade, “but their names emerged when looking at the importance of the science on Highway 17.”

Read about the Highway 17 wildlife crossing

Dr. Jodi McGraw and Dr. Chris Wilmers aren’t strangers in town, and they are definitely not strangers to the Land Trust. For the past eight years, one or both has been involved with almost every project the organization has taken on. Without the extensive research done on contested lands—such as the contending spots for the wildlife crossing—the fight for their protection wouldn’t stand a chance.

As the head of an environmental consulting firm, McGraw has contributed her knowledge of biological resource management planning to various projects for the Land Trust, beginning with the Sandhills protection plan in 2004. She has been actively involved with the Sandhills for about 20 years, ever since she did her undergraduate thesis on them, and is widely considered the area’s go-to Sandhills expert.

But her involvement with ecosystem protection doesn’t stop there. McGraw has done studies on wildlife connectivity between the Santa Cruz Mountains and neighboring regions, as well as on the redwood forest ecosystem, that have resulted in places like Star Creek Ranch San Vicente Redwoods receiving millions in state bond funds. She was also involved in the science behind the Land Trust’s guiding document, the Conservation Blueprint. Which brings us to the present.

“Both the Blueprint and the Santa Cruz Mountains linkage plans have sort of given rise to the work that the Land Trust is currently doing for the wildlife crossing,” says McGraw.

Read about the Land Trust's Conservation Blueprint

The wildlife crossing wouldn’t have gotten this far without the work of Wilmers either. He could arguably be nicknamed the “go-to Mountain Lion expert” in town, as he’s the head of the Puma Project at UCSC. His research has not only been a powerful aid for the wildlife crossing, but it has influenced the planning for public access at San Vicente Redwoods. Keeping both of these connectivity corridors adequately protected is crucial to the breeding success of the mountain lions. Wilmers also served on the Steering Committee for the Conservation Blueprint.

For more, visit the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County website.

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