The springtime panorama atop the Santa Rosa plateau could almost carry a Claude Monet signature: The pastels of distant California mountain ranges, impossibly blue skies, the sliver of deep Pacific Ocean aqua to the west, and green meadows bleed together and are flecked with bold points of color that are wildflowers.
It is so quiet here that the breeze whispering through the tall grasses teases the senses - there's not a human being for miles, yet the whole plateau seems alive with activity.
And in a burst of color that comes for a few weeks every spring, the plateau is splashed with rainbow rings of color - the bathtub-ringlike residues of wildflowers left by ''vernal pools.''
It is an ecosystem native to California but now in danger of extinction. Spring rainwater falls in shallow depressions in the clay soil, and as the pools slowly evaporate, the water plants left behind bloom. The depth of the water once covering the plants and the amount of oxygen they received at that depth determines their color - yellows, whites, blues. So fleeting are the rings of flowers, species that occur only at the rare vernal pools, that man has been largely unaware they even existed. Pass through here a few weeks early and there is a shallow pool of water, a few days late and there is just a green meadow.
It is a delicate and rare place. But it's bordered by three of California's most urban counties - Riverside, Orange, and San Diego; and it's owned by a subsidiary of a mammoth corporation. That makes this former California Rancho land prime for development.
This potentially explosive dichotomy has led to corporate and environmental showdowns at other times and places. But here, the vernal pool habitat is likely to be preserved through financial bargaining, rather than litigious bickering.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a national nonprofit group that has forged an unlikely alliance of business and environmental concerns, has been negotiating to buy up the vernal pool acreage on the Santa Rosa plateau. There have been no protests, no lawsuits - just the quiet, businesslike negotiations characteristic of a multimillion-dollar land sale. The deal being sought would involve both a cash sale and a donation of land by the corporation.
Farther inland, in the Big Bear Valley, nature's work isn't so dramatic. But, in fact, it is as fragile and rare as the vernal pool phenomenon.
''We are not interested in mere beauty,'' explains Victoria Vail, TNC's southern California membership coordinator. She says the Baldwin Lake Preserve in this area exemplifies the organization's goal to preserve whole habitats - the ecosystems that support all kinds of endangered plant and animal life. Baldwin Lake, above Los Angeles, hosts a bald eagle nesting area as well as the largest concentration of rare flowers in the United States - 21 species of wildflowers found here grow nowhere else in the world.
From a distance, the 136 acres preserved here by TNC look like dry, uninteresting scrub brush plots - patches of land the developers missed in the decades of rapid growth in this mountain playground.
But Tim Krantz, TNC preserve caretaker and local environmental consultant, encourages a ''lizard's-eye view'' of the hillsides. He crouches low, pointing out dozens of fingernail-size wildflowers, hardly distinguishable from more than a few feet away.
On one acre the Conservancy is trying to buy there grows a miniature shooting-star flower - a tiny, violet, missile-shaped bud with yellow stripes. ''I discovered this one,'' Mr. Krantz explains. He happened upon it last year. The flower apparently grows only on this particular acre of ground, which explains how it may have escaped notice. The ground around it is crisscrossed with off-road-vehicle tracks and is used as a dump site by the local community; that underscores the possibility that other plant species have already escaped protection.
In this mountain resort - already subdivided, built up, and priced as high as expansive land purchases. The Conservancy is undaunted, though, as it slowly asssembles parcels of land by buying them outright, buys development rights, offers to manage public land the government can't afford to, and even offers incentives for developers to donate land for preservation.
''We don't get involved in confrontational environmental politics, litigation , or lobbying,'' summarizes Brad Northrup, vice-president for administration at the Conservancy's Arlington, Va., headquarters.
''We don't seek to influence or pass legislation. We get out and buy the land.'' The Baldwin Lake and Santa Rosa plateau projects are part of TNC's broad-scale National Critical Areas Conservation Program, in which 11 endangered ecosystems native to California - and dozens of habitats native to other states - have been picked out for protection. This program has brought in millions of dollars since 1980 to protect native US lands such as endangered prairies, marshes, oases, and even whole islands. In California, for example, nearly $12 million of the targeted $15 million needed for California's critical areas has been raised.
The Critical Areas program is a particularly urgent one, drawing the bulk of TNC attention, because officials estimate that within 10 years many of the examples of native US wilds will be endangered; within 20 years, they may be extinct. The program is aimed at preserving the best remaining examples of natural ecosystems, most of which have been changed or destroyed by real estate development, agriculture, mining, or roads.
''All you need do is look at developments - like a San Francisco or an L.A., for example. All are modified by man, and there's essentially no information as to what it was like before. And you need one [acosystem] that hasn't been disturbed to conduct any kind of baseline study, where man has had no effect,'' says Dr. Mildred Mathias, professor emeritus of botany at the University of California at Los Angeles.
She says the value of preserving a whole habitat is that not just a single organism like an endangered eagle or a rare plant is preserved, but the whole system in which it lives. Preserving systems across the nation is like preserving a library, she says: The future value of the resources may not be known now, but it is possible it can be used later. ''And TNC is the only organization doing this sort of thing.'' This approach sets it apart from the traditional environmentalist approach, which is to preserve every acre of untouched land.
The Conservancy has drawn fire from more radical environmental groups because of its willingness to fraternize with corporate America, which has long been portrayed as the enemy of naturalists. In fact, the bulk of TNC's $260 million in assets has come from large, business-backed philanthropic foundations as well as corporations themselves. (Examples of last year's gifts to the California chapter include $1 million from Chevron USA, $500,000 from Getty Oil, and $25 million to be distributed over five years from the R.K. Mellon Foundation.)
''There's no way to stop development,'' Krantz reasons. But a lot of land can be preserved if environmentalists gain control of it, he continues. And because they are willing to deal in a businesslike way, he says, ''it makes us seem all the more reasonable.''
''When you have title of the land, no one can tell you what to do with it,'' Victoria Vail explains. ''You couldn't be in a business like this if you were strident and backstabbing,'' she adds. ''We have realized you have to work with them (big business). Besides, who better to get the money from than them?''
''Before I started [at TNC], I thought of the big corporate monolith,'' explains Ms. Vail, whose beliefs were rooted in traditional environmentalism. But now when she thinks of the business community, ''I think of individuals like [Leland] Prussia. They aren't rapacious developers going out bulldozing everything.'' Mr. Prussia, chairman of the board of the BankAmerica Corporation and a member of the board of the California chapter of TNC, is but one of a list of high-powered executives affiliated with the Conservancy.
''It's not complex,'' says Peter Seligmann, California state TNC director, when asked why businessmen and developers get involved. ''They do it because they're people - they're people who see the same clouds, same trees, and have the same love of the land as anybody has. . . . It's not complex; they do it because they're people and there's a distinction between corporations and people.''
He adds that there are tax incentives that encourage businesses to donate land and money to the Conservancy, but there is also an appeal because TNC speaks the corporate language.
The stereotypes flow both ways. ''I used to spend a half hour explaining that we weren't the Sierra Club,'' says Frank Boren, a Los Angeles commercial developer.
''Businessmen understand performance and with the Nature Conservancy they see tangible results, not a bunch of flyers. . . . Things really get done,'' says Mr. Boren, who chaired the California chapter during the 1970s and remains on the national board. As former legal counsel for several major oil companies, and now an urban builder, Boren speaks with authority.
He points out that a computer data bank developed by the California TNC and given to the state to determine the state's most endangered habitats has become an invaluable tool to developers who ''don't want another snail darter issue.'' (A dam project in Tennessee was halted because it threatened that rare fish.) ''I wouldn't start a project without checking it,'' he says.
The Santa Rosa plateau deal is characteristic of TNC's ambitious activities: The organization has already quietly obtained, plans to buy, has development rights on, or manages over 700 sanctuaries nationwide amounting to 2 million acres worth $200 million.
The scope of the Conservancy's acquisitions is comparable only to federal government preservation programs, say officials say. ''About $125 million was being spent a couple of years ago in preservation of land of ecological significance,'' estimates the Conservancy's Brad Northrup. ''We feel now that has shrunk to $35 to $40 million annually, and the Conservancy provides two-thirds of that.''
Although formed around 1950 by scientists and naturalists who thought preaching about preserving the vanishing wilds was a passive approach to what could be done with cash and business acumen, most of the growth in TNC's assets and activity has come in the past decade. Increased pressure on the environment and the financial problems of government have made the time ripe for TNC activity.
''Today we get a deed in the door every working day - just about 200 to 225 a year,'' says Northrup, who adds that 50 percent of TNC's 3,000 separate land acquisitions have come in the past decade. Membership has grown from 25,000 to 160,000 in that same period.
While the group is careful to preserve its apolitical profile - lest it tip the balance within its ranks of pin-stripe-suited and down-jacketed membership - TNC's methods are ''ironically in tune with the current administration,'' which promotes private-sector involvement in areas traditionally considered the government's domain, says Ms. Vail. The advantage of private ownership over government guardianship of the endangered lands is obvious in the fluidity with which TNC can use its funds, she says. ''We have millions of dollars to work with on a day's notice, where it can take them [government] years to fund a park ,'' she says. More than once, TNC has bought a piece of land and held it for several years for the government while red tape was ironed out.
Cash deals are not the only tool the Conservancy uses. The group has performed financial gymnastics to get landowners to sell or donate land for preservation.
TNC officials, who bend over backward to keep their dealings quiet, note that land prices have been known to quadruple overnight when it was learned the Conservancy wanted to buy. Many deals, such as the Santa Rosa Plateau, involve cash and a substantial donation by the landowner. When owners make an outright land donation, they can get up to a 50-percent tax break. The same tax break applies when they deed development rights to TNC.
''Trade lands'' programs involve the corporate donation of property to the Conservancy, which then sells it and uses the cash to buy endangered land. One oil company, for example, gave TNC an old Yakima, Wash., filling station. The corporation, which had no use for the station, got a tax break while unloading property it had no use for.
One of the more specialized financial tools being used is the ''mitigation land-bank'' program started in the Baldwin Lake area. Landowners there stand a very good chance of having some rare plant or animal on their property, Krantz explains. This is where the land bank came in: A developer who wanted to build on a parcel of land almost entirely vegetated by rare plants set aside 10 similarly vegetated acres that he owned elsewhere in the valley for a land bank.
Krantz says this 10 acres has become a bank that other developers can use. When a developer has a project threatened because of conservation problems, he can purchase acreage in the land bank to mitigate development on his own environmentally sensitive land. Thus the original developer is repaid, and other developers have an out by not having to sacrifice the development of their own valuable land. So far, TNC estimates it has gained one acre of land to preserve for every five acres developed in the area. Krantz also notes that one developer has recognized that preserving large parcels of land within subdivisions makes the lots more valuable. A permanent open space near a $50,000 lot can increase its value by $10,000 to $20,000, says Mr. Krantz.