On the sun-dappled winter morning of Dec. 12, Jane Garrison—the founder and president of the nonprofit Save Oswit Canyon, Inc.—was joined by a large group of supporters at the mouth of Oswit Canyon to announce that their dream of raising $1 million in just 5 1/2 months had indeed come true.
The funds were needed to fulfill the group’s negotiated contribution to buy the Oswit Canyon development property. Over four years of engaged activism, the group’s goal has been to keep Oswit Canyon, on the southern portion of Palm Springs, as a pristine retreat—by stopping the profit-driven housing development that had threatened the dream.
During a recent phone interview, Garrison said that even though her group’s goal had been reached, supporters should not become complacent.
“It’s a big hurdle (we’ve cleared), but we’re not there yet,” she said. “I think that’s the important thing that people need to understand: It’s not a done deal. We are not the owners of the property yet, but we’ve actually (cleared) a huge hurdle.”
So what happens now?
“(Our nonprofit is) going to be opening an escrow (account) with the developer in the next month or so,” Garrison said. “But the process is pretty long over the next couple of months. Right now, the appraisal has been completed. These three steps are the biggest: the certifying of the appraisal by the (state) Department of General Services; the approval by the California Wildlife Conservation Board for their grant; and the approval by the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy of their grant. Also, we’re getting money from the federal government through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the grant money we’re getting is because of the endangered species that live on that property.”
Those endangered species have become persuasive allies in the fight.
“You have the peninsular desert bighorn sheep, and you have the Casey’s June beetle,” Garrison said. “We know that the bighorn sheep live (in Oswit Canyon), but we’re not sure yet if the Casey’s June beetles are there. The property has never been adequately surveyed. So, we are receiving the grants because of the bighorn sheep.”
More than 1,000 unique donors have contributed, in amounts from $10 to $153,000. Garrison said that while some of those donations came from addresses outside of the area, the bulk came from locals.
Finding the right approach to generate the kind of enthusiasm that would motivate people to send money proved to be a formidable challenge, Garrison said.
“Back in July, when we did the press conference, also at the entrance to Oswit Canyon, announcing that the developer was willing to sell, we thought, ‘Oh, now our story is in the media, and everyone’s going to send donations,’” Garrison said. “And when we weren’t getting the amount of money that we needed to meet the deadline of Dec. 31, we went the traditional route, like most fundraising efforts do—and we started doing mailings. Those also did not bring in what we needed.
“Then I realized that people really needed to hear what we had to gain and what we had to lose with this canyon. In talking with people, I realized that if I had some time to explain (what was at stake), and if I had time to explain about the efforts that have been put in over almost four years, and how close we were, I knew they would understand. So that’s why we launched our house parties. We did 14 house parties in five weeks, as well as about a dozen speaking engagements at various clubs and organizations—and that’s how we raised much of the $1 million in five weeks, which is astonishing. But that’s how important this issue was to the community.
“It’s really exciting that the canyon is not being saved by one or two wealthy individuals. It actually is truly a community effort.”
In a best-case scenario—if the various grant-approving boards work quickly—the land buyback will close sometime between March and July. Who will own the title?
“Save Oswit Canyon, Inc., is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit land trust,” Garrison said, “and we have also been accepted as a member of the Land Trust Alliance.”
The Land Trust Alliance is a national conservation organization representing more than 1,700 land trusts across the United States.
“So since we’re set up like that, we are hoping to be the organization that holds the title and becomes the steward of that land, because we feel no one would protect that land like we would,” Garrison said. “The city (of Palm Springs) has expressed an interest in holding the title as well. But we are working with the city in hopes that they’ll agree to let us hold the title.”
During this anxious period of time, the Save Oswit Canyon leaders have a legitimate need to keep the donations flowing.
“When we take title, we will have property taxes,” Garrison said. “Eventually, we will become exempt from property taxes, because we are a nonprofit land trust, but that exemption will take 18 months—so we would have over $100,000 in property taxes. We’ll have liability insurance (costs), and a mounting legal bill, because we’ve been fighting for four years.
“Also, we will have the cost of maintenance and a cleanup. Unfortunately, over the years, people have dumped a couch and various trash. Also, we want to create some (informational materials). We don’t want visual clutter, but we do want like a big, beautiful boulder that has a plaque on it explaining how this canyon was saved by the people of Palm Springs. We will need trail signage and such. But the biggest thing is that we need a buffer. If any of these grants fall short, we won’t be able to delay the closing process. We’re going to need to have that money in the bank to fill any gaps.”
If you are interested in making a tax-deductible donation to Save Oswit Canyon, Inc., visit www.saveoswitcanyon.org. Also, Save Oswit Canyon accepts donations of stock.
“That’s a really great way for someone to contribute,” Garrison said. “Here’s something I learned: If someone has a stock, and they have a capital gain this year, if they donate that stock to a nonprofit, they don’t have to pay the capital gains (tax). So, stock donations have been very popular for us, which is great.”
As Save Oswit Canyon stands on the brink of realizing its goal, Garrison said she sees a more valuable and exciting byproduct of the campaign.
“I feel that this canyon has brought the community together like no other movement ever has in Palm Springs,” she said. “We are going to continue to protect the environment and protect open space. It’s amazing how many people care now about the environment, and they also see that they can make a difference. That is a big issue.
“So many times, especially now in our country, people feel so helpless. But this is proof that you actually can make a difference.”