Letters to the Editor

Roger Lyon’s legacy of conservation is in full bloom in SLO County

Greg Bettencourt, left, and Roger Lyon celebrate having inked a conservation easment covering the San Geronimo Ranch in 2007.
Greg Bettencourt, left, and Roger Lyon celebrate having inked a conservation easment covering the San Geronimo Ranch in 2007. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

If you’ve ever hiked the Estero Bluffs, you can thank Roger Lyon. If you’ve ever been struck by the beauty of Highway 1 near Hearst Castle, and if you love the rolling open space around Cayucos, you can thank Roger.

Roger Lyon’s determined conservationism was the driving force behind so many cherished open space preservation efforts, and the recent Eagle Ranch dedication is a reminder of his sterling legacy.

Roger was all but physically present when Jeff Smith, one of the family owners of the Eagle Ranch, honored him at the recent ceremony acknowledging the family’s land gift to the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. Jeff described meeting and interviewing Roger when the family was searching for a legal adviser to help craft a conservation arrangement for their ranch. Jeff recalled that at some point during that interview of Roger, he and his brother realized Roger was actually interviewing them.

That was Roger’s way: Make people stretch, grow and learn so that they rethink what is possible. As it turned out, Roger was just the attorney the Smiths were looking for: knowledgeable, committed, utterly trustworthy — and a conservationist who understood the deeply personal connection the Smiths had to their family’s ranch.

Roger Lyon, as many readers know, was a prominent local land use attorney. He was also an avocado and citrus farmer and a cattle rancher. But most importantly, he was an ardent conservationist.

Roger’s love for our area is attested to by the permanent preservation of tens of thousands of acres of pristine Central Coast land. He was instrumental in helping to conserve some of the county’s most cherished and spectacular places. He did this by rethinking the possible and inspiring others to see a similar vision.

Roger’s “revisioning” began modestly when he began to work with the Hearst Corp. and Caltrans to improve elephant seal viewing along Highway 1. Next, Roger and his wife and conservation partner, Susan, went to work to assure that the 4 miles of beautiful coastline north of Cayucos would not be developed with 60 homes and a resort hotel. The couple led the little town of Cayucos in 15 years of dogged and inspired efforts to preserve the Estero Bluffs and their astounding views, leading to the 1999 creation of Estero Bluffs State Park and the birth of the Cayucos Land Conservancy.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Roger played a pivotal role in imagining, and then making happen, the historic Hearst Ranch conservation easement that preserved 82,000 acres of our north coast. The New York Times called this 2005 agreement “one of the biggest and most complex land-conservation deals in the nation’s history.”

As the Hearst project was winding down, Roger was winding up another landmark conservation effort. The all-volunteer Cayucos Land Conservancy succeeded in purchasing a conservation easement on the 900-acre San Geronimo Ranch.

Finally, Roger and the Cayucos Land Conservancy negotiated the public opening in 2008 of Harmony Headlands State Park.

While that was the last of Roger’s coastal conservation achievements, it was not the end of his conservation influence on the Central Coast. Roger had begun working with the Smith family when we lost him tragically in 2010. The small plane Roger was piloting to transport a local group of Flying Samaritan doctors crashed in Mexico.

Roger worked with many, many people to make conservation a reality in SLO County. I’m proud to be one of those people, and I know there are thousands more who are equally grateful for all Roger accomplished.

As Jeff Smith talked about Roger, I found myself thinking about all of our county’s amazing conservation efforts — projects like the Fiscalini Preserve in Cambria, SLO City’s Open Space, Atascadero’s Three Bridges Oak Preserve, the Land Conservancy of SLO County’s Pismo Preserve and nearly 20,000 acres of other protected property.

Roger Lyon’s touch is everywhere, and as we relish our gorgeous green hills and spectacular wildflowers, I think we should also pause to thank Roger for all he did to assure this beauty is captured for generations to come. Roger had a love of the land and a vision to preserve it. His passion was infectious and it empowered and inspired other conservationists, landowners, donors and a community of supporters to step up and be part of the broad effort to protect the places they love.

While I marvel at and appreciate the memory of Roger and the unmatched gifts he left us, I also marvel at and appreciate all of those who continue to do similarly good work.

Greg Bettencourt is a retired English teacher and counselor. He is a founding member and still actively involved in the Cayucos Land Conservancy and the Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers.