SAN FRANCISCO — The United States high-tech sector hasn't been regarded as particularly high minded in terms of civic affairs and philanthropy. Historically separate, even suspicious, of the establishment, and populated with overnight successes often lacking deep roots in the community, the powerhouse of the nation's economy has earned a reputation for stinginess when it comes to the greater public good.
This week, though, tech wealth produced green wealth with one of the largest environmental gifts in US history.
From its unassuming offices in Los Altos, Calif., the David and Lucile Packard Foundation promised to spend $175 million during the next five years to protect a quarter-million acres of California land, ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada and from the north-central interior of the state south to Santa Barbara. It's not one contiguous piece of land, but many parcels within broad regions that are under intense pressure from the state's development boom.
"This is extraordinary. The foundation has clearly taken a leadership role" in land preservation nationwide, says Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group. Indeed, to find something comparable in scope to the Packard grants, you have to go back to the early 1900s and the Rockefeller family bequests that created national parks like the Grand Tetons.
In an era when federal funding of land acquisition has declined and in some states like California nearly dried up completely, many analysts see the announcement as a stunning reminder of a rising need. And the foundation's work is seen as a pioneering effort not only in magnitude, but in charting a new, more strategic and less dogmatic approach.
"Typically, nonprofits like us identify a site and try to get money from private sources or foundations to buy it, and then leave it alone," says Steve McCormick of the California Nature Conservancy. "We need programs that create more leverage to buy more land. And we need to recognize in some cases that growth isn't going to stop."
The California Nature Conservancy hopes to receive $9 million from the Packard Foundation for just that kind of leverage. It wants to buy agricultural land in the Central Valley that is in the path of growth, put limitations on the use of the land that would permit continued farming or ranching but prohibit retail or residential development, then sell it, recoup some of its investment, and take that capital to other land.
Multiply that activity thousands of times across the state, and you have a picture of what the foundation hopes to achieve.
"No one has tried this on this scale," says Jean Sedgewick, the Packard Foundation's conservation-program director. "We want to develop tools for the whole universe of groups that do this [land conservation] work."
The overriding goal is to protect scenic and biological diversity along the state's central coast, to preserve agricultural land from uses more harmful to the environment in the Central Valley, and to avoid unplanned development of the watersheds of the Sierra Nevada.
Making all this possible is the technology boom of the past 20 years and the personal ideals of the late David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Co., and his wife. Since the couple set up the foundation in the early 1960s, it has devoted more of its philanthropy to the environment than most foundations do. The third-largest foundation in the United States, the Packard Foundation spends nearly 20 percent of its yearly outlays on the environment. Others, on average, spend less than 5 percent.
For many Californians, the Packard gesture comes none too soon. During the next 20 years, the state's population of 30 million will grow by another 50 percent. Development and its attendant problems - from housing prices to clogged freeways - are already acute concerns.
But land pressure is felt in many states, particularly those with coastal areas. That's one reason land trusts, nonprofit groups that buy vulnerable property and preserve or convert it to public use, are one of the fastest-growing branches of the environmental movement.
In that world, the Packard commitment is a blockbuster. "The magnitude is astonishing," says John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy, a national organization with state branches. "I think it will significantly influence other philanthropists."