OVLC head to take on Conejo open space

web provided Brian Stark 1
Photo provided
Brian Stark at Ojai Valley Land Conservancy’s Ventura River Preserve.

Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News reporter
Brian Stark says none of his accomplishments at Ojai Valley Land Conservancy would have been possible without the support of the community.
Land trusts don't happen just anywhere, according to Stark. "They happen where there's this intersection of a caring population and pieces of land that people care about," he said.
On May 17, Stark, 53, announced he was stepping down after nine years with OVLC, nearly half of that as executive director, to become administrator for the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, near his home in Thousand Oaks.
Raised in Santa Monica, Stark’s interest in land issues grew from summers he spent at his grandparents’ cattle ranch in Nebraska. Between ranch chores, he’d ride horses and go hiking in the hills. As a Boy Scout he did a lot of backpacking and camping.
Stark earned college degrees in social science and geography. “In a way, I studied people and land,” he said. “That’s what we’re really doing here — connecting people with land in a way that makes them want to save it and protect it.”
In his first five years of large-scale projects on OVLC preserves, Stark managed the re-route of Rice Creek, in the Ventura River Preserve, back to its natural location, after 90 years of diversion. “It’s not every day you get to move a river. In a way, I felt that we were undoing a historic wrong out there,” he said.
At the Ojai Meadows Preserve, Stark led a project to restore oak woodlands and wetlands. “We can look back and see that 100 bird species are utilizing the preserve since the restoration started. That’s how you know you’ve created something special.”
Stark said public usage on OVLC’s preserves has never been higher and the number of supporters over the years has grown to some 1,300 households. “The organization has a community around it that inoculates the group against failure. We feel like we’ve reached this point where OVLC is an integral part of our community.”
That community showed its support after the smoke had cleared from the Thomas Fire. “They showed up big with donations. We had 200 new people sign up as volunteers; hundreds of new, first-time donors,” said Stark, who added he has great confidence in the organization. “I’ve got a very talented staff, a very involved board and an extremely supportive community — the recipe for continued success and growth.”
Stark said the work of land trusts is to tip the balance, to where there’s a competitive advantage for native plants, animals and birds. “We set nature onto a course, where ultimately it’s a sustainable thing that doesn’t need our human input. But for all the work I’ve done … I don’t think I’ve ever created anything that was any better than what nature would have done on its own, given the opportunity,” he said.
Current OVLC board president Roger Essick will serve as interim executive director of the organization while the search for Stark’s replacement is going on.
Stark is excited to be caring for land managed by COSCA, open spaces he enjoys every weekend. “They’re in a very similar situation as OVLC. They have a lot of land to take care of and resources are limited.” And both have just had big fires. “It’s an exciting opportunity to work really close to home and be fully present in the community I live in,” he said.
Stark said he’s looking forward to watching OVLC thrive and plans to stay involved in the organization. “I’m going to be a donor and, to the extent I can, I’m going to come up here and volunteer. I love the valley and I love the people here in the valley I’ve gotten to know,” he said.
Stark is confident OVLC and the community will continue to work together to further the organization’s mission of protecting Ojai’s views, trails, water and wildlife, for many years to come. “I’m optimistic for the future,” he said, “that there’s another generation of people coming up that care; that they’ll continue to fight for the protection of open space.”