Nonprofit conservation groups have preserved tens of thousands of acres of land in California – wild places where both hikers and animals roam. Now, some of them say the economic slump could force them to scale back.
Others say lean budgets make it harder for them to scrutinize land use proposals for environmental effects – a key role such groups play in the state's push-pull development process.
Most groups don't like to talk about their financial difficulties, but one, the American River Conservancy, recently took the unusual step of going public. In an email to members and supporters, the group confessed that "times are hard" and it needs to raise $250,000 by year-end or it will be forced to cut programs in 2012.
"What is happening to our organization is happening to a lot of organizations. We're just being honest about it," said Alan Ehrgott, the conservancy's executive director.
A major factor is the squeeze on government programs that provide money for land acquisition and education. In addition, private foundations that give grants to environmental groups have seen their endowments shrink substantially as the stock market has struggled.
"Every group really has got to focus on what they do well, what their core priorities are," said Tim Little, executive director of the Oakland-based Rose Foundation, which donates to environmental groups and is also helping coach them through tough times.
Like a number of other land groups operating in the Sacramento region, the American River Conservancy has worked on setting aside land for both recreation and wildlife habitat.
The conservancy has helped preserve 12,000 acres in the American River watershed, particularly along the south fork in the Coloma area. Among these projects was the acquisition last year of Gold Hill Ranch, site of the Wakamatsu Colony, the first Japanese settlement in North America.
It also has built more than 27 miles of public recreation trails, including the new South Fork American River Trail, which opened last year between Salmon Falls Road and Highway 49.
Lately, though, the group has been retrenching. It slashed its staff costs 27 percent – largely through voluntary actions by its 13 employees – and has tripled the number of grant applications it has in circulation.
If it can't raise $250,000, Ehrgott said, the conservancy may have to cut education programs that teach schoolchildren about the area's history and that take low-income kids into the wilderness to work on land management projects and learn about nature.
These programs have always been subsidized by grants to make them accessible to low-income participants. Ehrgott said the conservancy could continue the programs by charging participants the full cost, but that would change the experience.
"If we charge the full amount, we could probably do fewer trips, (mostly) with kids from wealthier families. But we think that's not socially responsible," he said. "We think everyone needs to learn about the outdoors and natural resource science."
A number of nonprofit groups told The Bee their paid membership ranks have remained surprisingly stable. But membership dues typically provide less than half of a conservation group's revenue. Grants provide the rest.
In the case of the California Native Plant Society, a statewide group based in Sacramento, memberships provide 40 percent of revenue, said executive director Tara Hansen.
"In terms of fundraising, it's definitely difficult," she said. "We have been working really hard to apply for grants and have not done too well this year."
Hansen declined to discuss any cost-cutting moves her group is considering.
A big task lately, she said, is scrutinizing renewable energy projects – solar, wind and geothermal – proposed throughout the state, especially in desert regions. The group does not oppose renewable energy, Hansen said, but wants to ensure that such projects are planned and built in a way that protects sensitive plants and habitats.
It is an example of the complex work, Hansen said, that the average citizen does not have time or expertise to do themselves.
"There are impacts on native vegetation all over the state, and we can't cover it all," she said. "We have to prioritize, and sometimes we have to say, 'No, we can't get involved in that.' We just simply don't have the resources."
Another watchdog feeling the financial strain is Friends of the River, a statewide organization based in Sacramento. It has long played a prominent role in monitoring state water management policy to protect rivers for recreation and habitat.
With just six employees, it currently operates without an executive director as a cost-saving move.
"Our budget is down considerably," said Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate with the group and one of the state's leading nongovernmental experts on water management and flood-control policy. "We're thin and we are struggling, but we're hanging in there."
The Rose Foundation last week hosted an event to help small nonprofits with their grantmaking pitches. Tim Little acknowledged that a "doom-and-gloom" feeling is taking hold at many nonprofits. But he said there is reason for optimism.
"Foundation endowments got whacked, there's no question about it. Donations are down for everybody," said Little, a veteran of several environmental groups. "But there's still a lot of money out there that folks can get. The challenge for every group, more than ever, is to be well organized.