Ojai’s Lorax: Alasdair Coyne

Ojai gardener, Alasdair Coyne, left the Japanese Mafia in the dirt in a high-stakes game to preserve what is now the Ventura River Preserve, owned by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.
Alisdair Coyne seated at a desk

By Kit Stolz

On a hot summer day in the mid-1990s, the conservationist and
professional gardener Alasdair Coyne, who emigrated to Ojai from
Scotland as a young man, came home to the sound of a ringing telephone.
He dashed up the stairs.

“I ran up the stairs to our living quarters to get the phone,” Coyne
said. “I was out of breath and not really prepared for the call.
Somebody with a Japanese accent said, “You know Mr. Toyama? He has no
finger.”

Coyne at the time had been leading a fight to preserve two large parcels
of land along the Ventura River frontage in the Ojai Valley — totaling
1,800 acres — from development into a luxury golf course called Farmont
by a Japanese tycoon named Kagehisa Toyama. Coyne had heard rumors that Toyama was a member of the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza.

“To be a member of the Yakuza you have to chop off the little finger of
your left hand — and you have to do it yourself, no one can do it for
you,” Coyne said. (Because he never met or spoke to Toyama, Coyne grants
that he cannot know if the allegation was true or not, but he believed
it.)

Coyne tried to ask questions of his mysterious caller but the man hung
up. Coyne guessed that he might have been calling from Japan, but
couldn’t know for sure. He went to the police. The Ventura County
Sheriff’s department put him in touch with a task force in Los Angeles
focused on organized crime, but after looking into the details, they
told Coyne — “unhelpfully” — that it was unlikely that a prominent
member of the Yakuza would be involved in a high-profile development in
California. Coyne consulted with a young Japanese acquaintance, who told Coyne that if he were a farmer in Indonesia or Hawaii, he would have reason to worry for his safety.

“He said that if I was a subsistence farmer in Hawaii or Indonesia, then
I might disappear in the night, but since I was prominent locally as a
member of the opposition in the community, they won’t drag me off in the
night and put a bullet in my head and drop me off at sea,” Coyne said.
“I wasn’t terrified, but it was sobering.”

At the time the Japanese economy was booming, and golf a national
obsession. Lindsay Nielson, a well-known Ventura attorney, represented
the proposal for Toyama and his firm in lawsuits, Board of Supervisor
hearings and the press. Nielson said that in the late 1980s to be a
member of the premier golf course in Tokyo could cost a million dollars
a year. A golf course for the wealthy could attract substantial
visitation from vacationing Japanese golfers, accustomed to flying to
Hawaii or California to play.

The battle between the Japanese magnate Toyama — who owned at the time a radio station in Japan — and a ragtag band of Ojai activists
led by Coyne began with a water bill. In July 1992, Coyne says, the
Meiners Oaks Water Company doubled the cost of his home water. At about
the same time, Coyne says, he heard of the Farmont plan to put in a
luxury golf course, initially described as a “Camp David West,” with a
luxury resort and a high membership fee, of $100,000 a year or more. He
knew the golf course would depend on wells near Rancho Matilija that
supplied the Meiners Oaks Water Company and the Ventura River Water
Company.

“So the price of water was going up, and it didn’t make sense to me to
be paying more money to support a luxury golf course, especially during
a drought,” he says now. Coyne went on to describe his style of
activism: a kind of Environmental Organizing 101. He began by building a
constituency. Already Coyne was writing on a frequent basis for a local
alternative paper, the Ojai/Ventura Voice, a now-defunct BI- weekly for
which he wrote fifty-five stories on Farmont over the course of eleven
years. In the paper Coyne began raising questions about the project.

Coyne avoided any rumors in his reporting. Instead he focused tightly on
the requirements of the county’s General Plan. In county planning
documents, he discovered a paragraph that prohibited the irrigation of
golf courses with drinking water, unless it could be demonstrated that
“the existing and planned water supplies for an area are shown to be
adequate to meet the projected demands for all existing and foreseeable
demands for water in that area.”

This became the crux of the argument. Although Toyama and his planners,
including the famous golf course architect Tom Fazio, proposed
workarounds, including a million-dollar plan to reclaim water for the
golf course from the Ojai Valley Sanitary District, nonetheless Alasdair
and his backers found enough support through appeals to the Board of Supervisors and the courts to block approval for over ten years. In the late 1990s Toyama became ill and ultimately passed away, and with his death and the stagnation of the Japanese economy, the project was abandoned and the land sold.

Today the bulk of the Farmont property has become the much-loved Ventura River Preserve, owned by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, purchased for $4 million dollars, with the bulk of the money coming in a $3.1 million grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy in January 2003. The Coastal Conservancy declared in the purchase agreement that this was the largest conservation acquisition in the history of Ventura County.

Looking back on the controversy, Nielson sounds philosophical about the
loss.

“Ojai is Ojai,” he said. “Probably it didn’t help that we were trying to
develop a golf course in the middle of a drought. I’ve long said that
any good idea should be able to withstand pushback. Alasdair mustered a
response, and ultimately time ran out and he won. I don’t resent
Alasdair.” Neilson joked that he couldn’t possibly resent a man who as a
result of the long-running battle over Farmont ended up putting his four
kids through college.

If it seems improbable that a self-employed organic gardener should be
the pivotal player in this high-stakes game, know that Coyne has been
leading efforts to preserve wildlands and access to wildlands since he
arrived in Ojai from Scotland in 1978. He led — and still leads — the
wilderness group Keep the Sespe Wild, which partnered with the Sierra
Club and others in the 1980s to pass a bill through Congress to preserve
the Sespe backcountry as wilderness and most of the 55 miles of Sespe Creek as a “Wild and Scenic River.”

When the Forest Service implemented an “Adventure Fee” in 1996,
requiring visitors to the national forests to pay a fee to enter
wildlands, even in areas without campsites or other amenities, Coyne
launched an action with partners around the country to oppose the fee as
an unfair “double taxation.” This meant raising money to fund lawsuits,
testifying before Congress and working locally to oppose
fees for simply visiting or walking the land. (Coyne stresses that his
group always supported paying fees for campgrounds and other costly
features, as well as fuller Congressional funding for the Forest
Service.) Over the last 24 years, this action too has largely succeeded, and as of 2012 such fees were only required at one trailhead in Ventura County.

Coyne continues to lead on wilderness issues in Ventura County. In
August Coyne rallied supporters to pressure the Forest Service to drop
plans to log a 425-acre stand of large pine trees on Reyes Peak. Coyne
estimated in an op-ed in the Ojai Valley News that 15,228 trees, many of
them old-growth pines, possibly hundreds of years old, would be felled
in a misguided attempt to save old-growth trees from the risk of fire.
He references studies that showed fire had “been insignificant in the
area for many hundreds of years.” Coyne worked out his argument from
Forest Service plans: he said forest planners agreed his estimates of
the numbers of trees slated to be cut were on the mark.

Although Coyne has inevitably suffered setbacks over the last 50 years
of environmental organizing, he has never doubted — or never seemed to
doubt — his ultimate success. Even allies at the time were taken aback
by his invincible confidence.

Jim Lashly, a long-time Ojai actor, director and friend, recalls Coyne
being asked to join the nascent Ojai Valley Land Conservancy back in the
late 1980s.

“We were seven or eight people sitting around talking about how we would
go to somebody and they would donate the land so that we could preserve
it in perpetuity,” Lashly said in wonderment. “We were all (with an
exception or one or two) essentially hippies, talking about huge
expanses of acreage, while we were trying to scrape together 15 bucks to
copy some documents. It was the same sort of chutzpah that Alasdair had,
living in Upper Ojai, and thinking he’s going to stop this Japanese
multi-billionaire. I thought: yeah, that’s going to happen.”

Yet over time that’s exactly what did happen. Coyne himself attributes
his certainty to the rightness of the cause, a fidelity to fact-based
research and to a faith in communication with nature through methods
developed by an organization called Perelandra. Coyne says this allows a
person to ask for guidance and protection from the energies of the
natural world. When asked for an example, he mentions the Thomas Fire.

“During the Thomas Fire I asked for protection for the property from the
nature spirits responsible for the property, and even though the fire
burned all around the property, not one speck of black was visible on
the property even as embers were flying through the air,” he said. “It
was as if a big bubble had been extended over my property and a
substantial portion of my neighbors as well, with no damage at all. It’s
a good example of the protection that is there for the asking.”

Not too shabby for a self-described “little gardener from Upper Ojai.”

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