Steve Junak sits in the back seat of the Toyota 4Runner, his eyes trained on the green-gold blur of central California vegetation like a gambler glued to a slot machine. What’s just grass to most people are sedges and rushes and ryes to Junak. Those sedges might be round fruit sedge or split awn sedge. Some of them he can distinguish from a distance. Others he might have to hold in his hand and squint at.
It’s not easy to stump a man who spent 37 years as the herbarium curator at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden—even out here on The Nature Conservancy’s new Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, which boasts some of the highest numbers of rare species in the region. “Is Isocoma on your list?” Junak asks his companion, Laura Riege, the preserve’s restoration manager, who is scanning a checklist of plants in a binder on her lap. “We just passed a bunch of Isocoma, coast goldenbush.”
“Sure is,” says Riege, as the vehicle pulls off to the side of the dirt road, high up on a ridge overlooking the Pacific.
“And here’s Encelia, too,” Junak says, hopping out of the vehicle and pointing out the yellow blooms of bush sunflower. “This is a gold mine.”
Junak takes a full census of the botanical jackpot they’ve discovered on this June morning: morning glories to the left, coffeeberries to the right and monkey flowers straight ahead. Riege and Junak record the GPS coordinates of native plants that will provide seed stock for some upcoming coastal prairie and oak woodland restoration projects on this 24,364-acre preserve, which TNC acquired in December 2017.
The purchase was made possible by a $165 million gift—the largest single philanthropic gift in TNC's history—from Jack and Laura Dangermond. It marked the first step toward safeguarding this iconic property at Point Conception, Southern California’s “elbow” where the coast bends northward to San Francisco. The Conservancy had tried, and failed, to purchase the property in the past. It was one of the last large, privately owned and still-undeveloped coastal tracts in Southern California, making it a rarity amid one of the country’s most expensive real estate markets.