Palo Corona Regional Park - Big Sur Land Trust

Saving Big Sur

Palo Corona Regional Park - Big Sur Land Trust

Palo Corona Regional Park.
Photo courtesy: Guru Khalsa/Guru.foto

At the Big Sur Land Trust, Jeannette Tuitele-Lewis helps protect the most beautiful coast in the world.

By Peter Fish

"Big Sur is an incredibly iconic region," Jeannette Tuitele-Lewis says. "Amazing and beautiful. We're so lucky here."

Anybody who has experienced Big Sur will agree. Stretching south from Monterey for more than 70 miles, Big Sur's cliffs and coves and crashing waves, its wildflower–dotted hillsides and redwood canyons combine to create the most beautiful coastline in the world.

Jeannette Tuitele-Lewis

Jeannette Tuitele-Lewis, president and CEO of Big Sur Land Trust.
Photo courtesy: Big Sur Land Trust

As CEO and president of the Big Sur Land Trust, Tuitele-Lewis has helped to keep Big Sur unspoiled. Since its founding in 1978, the trust has saved 40,000 acres of Big Sur from the overdevelopment that has marred other popular coasts, from Miami Beach to Waikiki.

"We're a nonprofit conservation organization," Tuitele-Lewis says in in her office in Monterey's historic Gabriel de la Torre Adobe. "We work to conserve land for open space, for wildlife habitat, to maintain working landscapes like farming and ranching." To do that, the trust buys private lands (from willing sellers) then transfers them to state, regional park, or other agencies so the public can enjoy them.

"We work quietly in the background," Tuitele-Lewis explains. "People sort of know what we do, but they don't always have the full sense." There's ample evidence of the trust's work — swaths of coast and mountains that remain undeveloped — along Highway 1 through Big Sur.

One of the trust's biggest successes is open to the public now. The Lobos-Corona Parklands project, the largest conservation effort in Monterey County history, takes in 10,000 acres that extend from the Carmel River south into the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. Working with other agencies, including the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, the trust helped acquire these ecologically rich acres and is now in the process of opening much of them to the public. Almost half the land has been set aside as Palo Corona Regional Park. Trail access from Carmel Valley opened last year, and additional access is expected to open this year.

Big Sur

Big Sur
Photograph by Christopher von Steinbach

The trust's environmental mission extends beyond preserving open space. Tuitele-Lewis, who became the CEO and president in 2014, is especially proud of their educational programs. "We have three-day camp experiences where youth get out into nature," she says. "This year, we had 150 students." All the children are from Monterey County, she explains, but many haven't had opportunities to explore their own natural backyard. "We want kids to realize their connection with nature. Because you only protect what you love."

That's a lesson Tuitele-Lewis drew from her own life. With a father in the Navy, she "grew up all over," she says. She spent her early childhood in Guam. She recalls, "I spent my days searching for shells on the beach." Her family moved to Northern California, but she returned to island life when she attended the University of Hawaii, earning a degree in botany. She then spent time in American Samoa, where her father was from, studying ethnobotany and working with traditional healers. "I've always been interested in the relationship between people and their environment."

Tuitele-Lewis learned about land trusts when earning a master's in forest science at Oregon State University. "I had been doing a lot of technical scientific work," she remembers. "I missed the people aspect of the work. For me, that is where I feel I am at my best, when I'm able to make the connection between land and people and tell the story." She adds, "The outdoors was where I could feel I could be myself. The land saved me. And now I get to save the land."

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Big Sur

Since its founding, Big Sur Land Trust has saved 40,000 acres of land from overdevelopment.
Photograph by Christopher von Steinbach