October 27, 2004

The Man Behind the Land

David Gelbaum has shunned publicity while giving millions to preserve California wilderness and teach youths about nature.

By Kenneth R. Weiss
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

He has given more money to conservation causes in California than anyone else. His gifts have helped protect 1,179 square miles of mountain and desert landscapes, an area the size of Yosemite National Park.

His donations to wilderness education programs have made it possible for 437,000 inner-city schoolchildren to visit the mountains, the desert or the beach — often for the first time.

Over a decade of steadily growing contributions — including more than $100 million to the Sierra Club — this mathematician turned financial angel has taken great pains to remain anonymous.

In manner and appearance, David Gelbaum has maintained a low profile for someone who can afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars.

At age 55, retired from the rarefied world of Wall Street hedge funds, he lives in Newport Beach with his wife and two of his five children in a large home where visitors on occasion have mistaken him for the gardener. Bespectacled, 5 feet 5 and slightly built, he speaks softly, barely above a hoarse whisper. He drives a Honda Civic hybrid, wears jeans and T-shirts to business meetings and helps the kids clean up at the wilderness camp-outs he sponsors.

Those who know him say he is never more uncomfortable than when asked to talk about his wealth or how much of it he has given away.

His donations, which according to public records and other sources total at least $250 million, have preserved hundreds of miles of wildlife corridors across mountains and deserts, tying together once-isolated national parks and wilderness areas. One conservation deal, land trust experts say, is the largest single purchase of private land ever handed over to the U.S. government for one purpose: to leave it alone.

He has given more than $20 million to schools in Orange County and handed over 108 rolling acres in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains for use as an outdoor-education camp.

He has contributed $3.5 million to Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's foundation to help the poorest children attend the camp's wilderness programs. Carona is both grateful and a bit mystified by the benefactor.

"He's one of these strange guys who doesn't want any publicity but wants to take care of kids and the community," Carona said. "When you look him in the eye and say, 'You've made a positive change in these kids' lives,' he does not want to take any credit for it. He's almost embarrassed when you say thank you to him."

(A federal grand jury recently subpoenaed financial records of Carona's foundation. Federal officials have not disclosed why they want the documents.)

Gelbaum, a native of Minnesota who moved to California as a teenager, was a math prodigy who parlayed his talents into a highly lucrative three-decade career using mathematical formulas to pick stocks and bonds for wealthy investors in hedge funds.

He won't say how much he made. He started giving his money away in ever-larger amounts in 1994.

"Most wealthy people spend their lives trying to make more and more money rather than give it away," Gelbaum said during a series of interviews that he agreed to only reluctantly. "They wait too long. They are depriving themselves of a lot of joy. I'm doing what I want to do. It's not like it's money that I or my family will ever need.

"It's a joy to see this land preserved and opening these kids' eyes to the natural world. It's not like burning the money. It goes into the land or into the kids' experiences. Both last forever."

Some charitable foundations have given more money to conservation causes, but much of it is aimed at saving tropical rain forests or other overseas ventures. The only individual whose contributions to California conservation rival Gelbaum's is Caroline Getty, granddaughter of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. She recently donated $150 million to the Preserving Wild California project of the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation.

Gelbaum said his interest in land conservation was inspired by camping trips he took with his father and brothers to lakes in northern Minnesota, as well as Yellowstone National Park and Mt. Whitney. "Those were the happiest memories of my childhood."

It isn't enough, he said, "to protect wilderness just for people who can afford to go to it. I think bringing kids out to the wild is unquestionably the right thing to do. These kids have pretty tough lives. It opens their eyes to the world outside of their neighborhood. Some of the kids will grow up to protect the land they learn to love. You could look at it as an investment into the environment."

When making donations, Gelbaum usually insists that his identity not be revealed — out of concern, he says, for his family's security.

Besides, he said, "I don't think that if you have a lot money and you give away a lot of money, you should get a lot of recognition. You shouldn't be able to buy that."

Gelbaum has made his largest contributions to the 10-year-old Wildlands Conservancy, an Oak Glen, Calif.-based group that he co-founded with David Myers, who has remained the group's executive director.

Myers, an ardent environmentalist, wanted to sell 640 acres of desert land he owned near Yucca Valley and use most of the proceeds for other conservation projects. In 1994, he placed a newspaper ad seeking "a conservation-minded donor" who would buy, but not develop, the land. Gelbaum answered the ad. They have been working together ever since.

Gelbaum now acknowledges that he has been the biggest benefactor of the conservancy and its sister organization, the Wildlands Endowment Fund, which has taken in $157.8 million for land preservation, outdoor education and related programs.

But for the last decade, Myers avoided revealing the identity of his reclusive angel, despite growing curiosity about who was bankrolling this obscure conservation organization that was buying and swapping real estate with the gusto of a 19th century land baron.

Beginning in 1995, the group began making strategic land purchases, now totaling 70 square miles, in order to link the San Bernardino, San Jacinto and Big Horn Mountains with Joshua Tree National Park.

The next year, Wildlands purchased a 97,000-acre former cattle ranch in the foothills of the San Emigdio Mountains, northwest of Gorman, where a developer once hoped to build thousands of luxury homes.

Just outside metropolitan Los Angeles, the ranch, renamed Wind Wolves, has become the West Coast's largest privately owned nature preserve, its cascading hills and steep canyons an hour and half drive from the nation's second largest city.

By 2000, Wildlands had filled many of the largest holes in the wilderness tapestry created by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. The legislation created the Mojave National Preserve, enlarged Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments and elevated both to national park status but left intact several privately owned parcels.

Wildlands bought out the largest of the landowners, the former real estate arm of the Santa Fe Pacific Corp. railroad, which had threatened to open the desert to development. Wildlands acquired 1,000 square miles and turned over the land to the federal government.

In 2001, Gelbaum branched out with two back-to-back anonymous gifts to the Sierra Club Foundation that dwarfed all previous individual contributions to the club. The $101.5 million in donations led to a 10-fold increase in the club's Youth in Wilderness programs and expansion of many other club activities.

But the windfall caused a stir internally. Gelbaum's identity, known only to a few Sierra Club officials, became an issue in a bitter struggle for control of the club's board of directors.

A slate of candidates, which wanted the club to call for tighter controls on immigration to stabilize the U.S. population and its impact on the environment, demanded to know the source of the donations. The candidates contended that the club's leadership opposed their election partly because of pressure brought by the secret donor.

"Is this foreign money? Is it money that comes with special obligations? I would want to know I'm not running a laundry or being a front group for an entity that doesn't have the best interests of the United States at heart," said former Colorado Gov. David Lamm.

Lamm and other like-minded candidates were soundly defeated in a vote of club members last April, and the source of the money was not revealed. But clues surfaced during the flap.

A Sierra Club official let slip a comment about a pair of unnamed brothers. That and other bits of information led The Times to Gelbaum, who, with his brother, Daniel, sat on the Wildlands Conservancy's board of directors, along with Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

David Gelbaum insisted that he played no role in the election. He dismissed allegations that he is calling the shots at the club in any other way.

"None of that is true," he said. "I'm not some Svengali. I'm not that engaged."

But he said Pope long had known where he stood on the contentious issue. "I did tell Carl Pope in 1994 or 1995 that if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me."

Gelbaum said he was a substantial donor at the time but not yet the club's largest benefactor. Immigration arose as an issue in 1994 because Proposition 187, which threatened to deny public education and health care to illegal immigrants, was on the state's ballot.

He said he was so upset by the idea of "pulling kids out of school" that he donated more than $180,000 to the campaign to oppose Proposition 187. After the measure passed, he said, he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to civil rights lawyers who ultimately got the measure struck down in court.

Gelbaum, who reads the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión and is married to a Mexican American, said his views on immigration were shaped long ago by his grandfather, Abraham, a watchmaker who had come to America to escape persecution of Jews in Ukraine before World War I.

"I asked, 'Abe, what do you think about all of these Mexicans coming here?' " Gelbaum said. "Abe didn't speak English that well. He said, 'I came here. How can I tell them not to come?'

"I cannot support an organization that is anti-immigration. It would dishonor the memory of my grandparents."

Born in Minneapolis, the second of four sons, Gelbaum moved to California when his father, Bernard Gelbaum, became founding chairman of the UC Irvine math department.

David Gelbaum showed early prowess in math, taking calculus at UC Irvine while still in high school. Months before he graduated from UCI in 1972, he was hired by math professor Edward O. Thorp to help with a business that needed a math researcher.

Thorp, who wrote the book "Beat the Dealer," about how to count cards and win at blackjack, was applying mathematical wizardry to the largest crap game in the world: Wall Street.

His formulas, which later appeared in his book "Beat the Market," led him to launch the nation's first market-neutral hedge fund — one intended to make money for investors whether the market goes up or down. From 1970 to 1989, the fund never had a losing quarter and increased investors' money more than 13-fold.

Gelbaum was one of his first math researchers hired to track and exploit the price discrepancies between a company's stocks and its options, warrants and convertible bonds.

"He was smart. He was idiosyncratic. He was always looking for more," Thorp said.

Thorp recalls a conversation with young Gelbaum about his salary.

"I said, 'I think we can multiply your salary by five times in five years.' He came back to me five years later with the same question. I said, 'I think I can multiply your salary by five times in five years. But I don't think I'll be able to do that again.'"

The firm, called Princeton-Newport Partners, was dissolved in 1989, when five of the firm's stock brokers based in Princeton, N.J., were convicted of scheming to create illegitimate tax losses. The convictions were overturned on appeal. Neither Thorp nor Gelbaum was implicated in the scandal.

Gelbaum emerged from the wreckage as a principal in a new investment firm, operating a new hedge fund using math formulas pioneered by Thorp.

Gelbaum declined to talk about the firm, Sierra Enterprises Group, from which he retired a few years ago. His business success, he said, "was all a matter of chance. It certainly wasn't because I worked 5,000 times as hard as the average person or was 5,000 times smarter than the average person."

He was more forthcoming about his venture into the cattle business. In the mid-1990s, he bought a pair of ranches "to run in an environmentally sensitive manner."

The Kane and Two-Mile ranches are in northern Arizona, a place Gelbaum learned about in a college ecology class. This is where Theodore Roosevelt once hunted mountain lions to reduce predators and increase the number of deer. The deer population soared and then starved in what became a textbook case of disrupting nature's balance chronicled by America's foremost ecologist, Aldo Leopold, in "A Sand County Almanac."

"It caught my imagination," Gelbaum said. So he bought the ranches and arrived with a message. "I told people when I came to Arizona I wanted to be good to the land and good to the people."

He won praise for removing cattle from wilderness areas and for raising wages of the cowboys and providing them housing and health care. He recently agreed to sell the ranches to the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group, for $4.5 million.

The ranches cover about 1,000 acres and control grazing rights on 900,000 acres of surrounding federal land.

Four years ago, President Clinton turned a large swath of these grazing lands into the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, and Gelbaum won the admiration of then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Babbitt's plan provoked the ire of local ranchers, who complained that it would run ranchers off good grazing land. At the height of the protests, Gelbaum's ranch manager stood up in a packed meeting hall and explained that his boss controlled all of the grazing rights in the area and considered the monument perfectly compatible with his ranching operations.

The speech hushed the protesters and allowed the monument to go forward.

"I half-thought about recommending to the president to name the national monument after David Gelbaum," Babbitt said. "Without David Gelbaum, it might well not have happened."

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

October 20, 2004

They're All Over the Map

The Auto Club's intrepid cartographers traverse the rural Southwest cataloging the uncharted features of a changing landscape.

John O'Dell
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

VIRGIN MOUNTAINS, Ariz. — Shane Henry steered his truck along a dusty road, emerging from a steep, cool pine forest and dead-ending on the edge of a precipice. The uncharted spot provided a breathtaking, 30-mile-wide panoramic view of the Virgin River Gorge, stretching northeast into Utah.

For Henry, a field cartographer for the Automobile Club of Southern California, it was a great day of discovery. After finding the overlook, he spotted ruins of a forgotten century-old cattle ranch near a pair of freshwater springs. Between overlook and ruins, he had also found 10 miles of a drivable dirt road. None are on the Auto Club's current "Indian Country" road map, but all his finds will be on a new version due out in two years.

Despite the popularity of Global Positioning System navigation and earth-blanketing satellite photography, there are still places few have seen and roads few have traveled. Henry and his senior road-mapping colleague, John Skinner, are helping to find them.

The duo of Skinner and Henry doesn't have the same poetic ring as Lewis and Clark. But 200 years after the famous explorers began their mapping trip through the American West, Skinner and Henry are doing much the same work, traveling the rugged backcountry of the Southwest, looking for something new.

The two explorers are a rarity in the modern world of mapmaking. Rand McNally Co. and the various AAA groups are the primary publishers of U.S. road maps. Most full-time field researchers work on roadways in urban and suburban areas.

Skinner and Henry "are probably the only ones in the U.S. doing what they do" with backcountry mapping, says Bill Scharf, head of the Auto Club's cartography division. The Los Angeles-based club publishes 90 different maps and distributes 7 million road maps annually. It tries to update them every other year.

Every dirt road and trail shown on them will eventually be driven and rated by the Auto Club's field cartographers. But they rarely work together.

"There's too much work to do to team up," Skinner says.

They spend 10 months a year on the road, racking up about 60,000 miles each in four-wheel-drive trucks. The Auto Club provides the trucks, which are adorned with the club's logo and a banner: "Map Unit."

Their territory is vast. Skinner and Henry cover the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada, rural regions of 13 Southern California counties and all of Baja California. They also map the Four Corners area — a 130,000-square-mile region surrounding the point where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah all touch — which is included in the club's celebrated Indian Country map.

That map is a fixture in tourists' cars and ranchers' pickups alike. Its accuracy is why "everyone around here uses it," says Ed Chamberlin, curator of the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site museum on the Navajo Reservation in Ganado, Ariz.

Novelist Tony Hillerman, whose mysteries featuring Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn have brought the Four Corners region alive for millions of readers, has also made the map a key part of his fictional cop's crime-fighting arsenal.

Henry, 42, a former actor, has been on the job for three years; Skinner, 59, is a trained geographer who has been riding trail for the Auto Club for 22 years.

John Skinner reviews a map while working near Barstow. (John O’Dell / LAT)

Skinner quit in the '90s and moved to Arizona for three years in pursuit of a romance that ultimately failed. When the heartbreak healed, he asked for his old job back and hit the road again.

"This job is not good for relationships," says Skinner, who has been engaged three times but has never married.

Skinner and Henry work in trucks loaded with GPS navigation systems and highly detailed federal topographical maps to trace their tracks. Backseats and cargo areas are filled with piles of extra maps, cellphones, tents and food. They carry jacks, flares, survival kits, tire pumps, extra fuel lines, transmission oil and fan belts.

As they drive, Skinner and Henry continually check special odometers, accurate to within one-thousandth of a mile, to verify that the distances already listed on maps are precise. They also rate road conditions to ensure that routes haven't been washed out by flash floods or altered by construction. Their discoveries may include stone quarries, mines, washes, overlooks, abandoned towns and a dizzying variety of unpaved roads.

Dirt roads on AAA maps are rated from graded and gravel-topped thoroughfares to badly eroded and rutted tracks best suited for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.

"We want to make sure that if a mom in her Volvo decides to take one of these roads, she'll be able to make it," Henry says.

On the job, Skinner and Henry usually sleep in motels, not tents. Still, notes Denis Cosgrove, a cultural geography professor at UCLA, the two are throwbacks who resemble "the early topographers, trekking out into inaccessible places and trying to reduce a part of the world to a page on a map."

The job has its perils.

Skinner and Henry have had encounters with mountain lions and rattlesnakes. And they give wide berth to desert compounds littered with the glass vials and metal cooking pots that mark the illegal drug-making operations of modern outlaws.

The mapmakers say their work requires a big helping of self-confidence. Henry was on a rough dirt road in the mountains northwest of Lake Powell in Utah when he saw the road ahead disappearing between some rocks. Usually he would get out and walk the route to see where it went before proceeding, but it was late and he was tired, so he just drove on.

As Henry passed the curve it turned into a narrow, terrifying stretch made up of loose rock rubble with a 200-foot drop on one side. He kept going, in part because an Auto Club map indicated that the road led across the mountain summit.

But about 200 yards from the top he found himself trapped. The road's loose rock had turned into a series of 18-inch-high granite ledges.

"Those steps were just a little too high for my truck tires to roll over," Henry says.

He couldn't make a U-turn because the road was too narrow. One option was to back downhill, but he faced a mile-long path of scree with the long drop on one side. So he decided to keep going up. He exited the truck very carefully, so he wouldn't slip off the precipice, then gathered rocks to build a little ramp so he could drive over the step. Then every 30 feet or so he stopped because of another granite step and had to build a new ramp. It took Henry four hours to drive 200 yards.

"This is a good example of why we drive all these roads," he says. On the older map it showed as a rough but usable dirt road across the summit. "But it had deteriorated so badly it was impassable for most people, so I took it out" for the new map, he says.

Skinner and Henry can trace their jobs back to 1905, when AAA published its first road map and helped pioneer the industry at a time when motorists were few and marked roads fewer. In those days, maps were basically logbooks written to describe trips with descriptions of key geographic spots, gas stations, historic buildings, river bends, anything to guide drivers.

Later, auto clubs and other promoters invented names for roads and posted road signs for travelers to follow. But there was no uniformity. The same road could be called one name by a city, another by a real estate developer who had published his own map and something else by a local travel and touring club.

It wasn't until 1916, when Rand McNally started its own route numbering system, that travelers heading south from Boston to Florida could follow a route that retained the same name from state to state — as long as they used Rand McNally maps. Finally, in 1924, the federal government adopted a uniform numbering system so that major travel routes would retain their identities across the country.

Both Skinner and Henry took circuitous routes to land their current jobs.

Skinner was a ship navigator in the Navy, then earned a degree in geography from Cal State Fresno. He worked four years for a local AAA office as a tourist counselor, offering maps and advice on trips. When a job opened up as a field cartographer in 1979, he took it.

Shane Henry inspects a U.S. Geological Survey marker. (John O’Dell / LAT)

Henry grew up in rural Oregon and earned a master of fine arts degree in classical theater at the University of Alabama. He spent 15 years traveling the country as an actor and dancer in regional theaters. He met Skinner by chance when Skinner was on a mapping trip in Los Padres National Forest and was fixing a flat tire. Henry was out hiking and struck up a conversation. Skinner told him about an opening for another map researcher.

A typical day of mapping covers 30 to 50 miles of dirt roads.

On trips to Baja California and Indian Country, Skinner and Henry often travel for three weeks at time. But the Auto Club requires them to take off one day in seven.

"It can be a real pain when you are out in the middle of nowhere, and the only thing you can do with your day off is sit around a lonely motel or campsite," Henry says.

Although he and Skinner meet plenty of storekeepers, restaurant workers and travelers in their work, their return visits are so far apart that friendships rarely form.

"You do have to like to work by yourself," Henry says.

Yet of the 10 field cartographers the Southern California club has hired in the last 35 years, only one has quit for good to pursue a more normal lifestyle. That was Dan Goodwin, now a 44-year-old environmental health and safety manager for a manufacturer in Pasadena.

In 1986, with a newly minted geography degree from UC Santa Barbara, Goodwin thought the job would be perfect, but eventually the loneliness got to him.

"I found myself wishing that I had someone with me on those road trips to share it with," he says. Goodwin quit in 1989.

The club prides itself on the accuracy of its maps, but errors do occur. Sometimes a field researcher fails to properly record the distance between road junctions, or omits a creek or gives a bad road a better rating than it deserves.

"Every once in a while we'll get a call or a letter from someone who took a car or a Winnebago too far down a road and got stuck or found that the road was a lot nastier than the map suggested," says Jim Kendall, the local Auto Club's map research chief. So when Skinner or Henry makes a rare appearance at the club's Costa Mesa office, he is often handed a pile of complaints to check out before the next map is printed.

Sometimes the cartographers find the mistakes on their own.

On a trip near Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah last year, Henry drove across a little creek and stopped for lunch. Then a sudden thunderstorm hit and dumped enough water to swell the creek into a torrent. A creek that had been 6 inches deep was now 3 feet deep, and it would have flooded Henry's engine had he tried to drive back. But his Auto Club map showed he was near a dirt road leading to a highway, so he took it.

Unfortunately, the map failed to show that the road crossed the same creek again before reaching the highway. When he arrived at the second crossing, the water was deep and running fast. But Henry carries a pair of 6-foot boards in his pickup for just such emergencies, and he spent several hours piling up rocks so he could lay the boards over them as a makeshift bridge.

After driving across, Henry says, "I saw a homemade sign someone had put up that said, 'Creek may rise without warning.' "

That second crossing is now on the Auto Club's Indian Country map.

October 6, 2004

Mojave Resentment

Los Angeles Times

Re: "In the Mojave Preserve, Emotions Still Run Hot," Sept. 26: The East Mojave Preserve is not the private elite property of the wilderness lobbies. The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity have waged a campaign with their own exclusive agenda.

The new wilderness area closes historical public access to millions of acres of the California desert. Those of us who live in the desert and know the East Mojave resent the intent to exclude the public by closing roads and camp areas that date back to California's earliest history.

Jim Bagley
Twentynine Palms