Staff spotlight: Leslie Lew (she/her), Natural Resources Specialist

December 28, 2023

Posted in: People & Places

Prior to joining Ag + Open Space, Leslie was the Chief of the US Fish and Wildlife Service – California\Nevada Wildlife Refuge Planning Office. Leslie has worked in habitat restoration, flood control, trail building, preserve management, and prescribed fire work. She has worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers, California State Parks, National Park Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Leslie has also worked as a rock climbing and cross-country ski guide, NPS Ranger, and Volunteer Coordinator.

Leslie has two kids, is a landscape architect, and loves outdoor activities, fine food and wine, and creating art. When not at work, she is an activist and is the Board Chair of the Planned Parenthood Northern California Action Fund, and is a board member of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. She was also selected to serve on the Napa County Prescribed Burn Association steering committee.

Leslie Lew working a prescribed burn.

What’s your favorite Sonoma County place to get outside and why?
Having managed Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve for over ten years, I feel deeply connected to this magical place. The preserve takes in the full range of elevations, from the floor of the Valley of the Moon to the ridgetops of the Mayacamas Mountains. Calabazas is a geographic snapshot of all the beauty and majesty that makes our county special. In one short hike, you can see redwoods, grasslands, oaks, madrones, chaparral, and remnants of historic buildings while taking in panoramic views of Sonoma Mountain and the Sonoma Valley. You can find refuge on a hot day in deep dark hollows near the creek and on sunny calm winter days, you can luxuriate on a warm rock surrounded by chaparral so high on the ridge that it’s like being on top of the world. In the nearly 15 years that I managed Calabazas Creek, I came to know so many of the Preserve’s nooks and crannies, secret waterfalls, special rock formations, and all the best redwood trees – yet there was always more to discover.

When the entirety of Calabazas burned in 2017, it provided a laboratory of how Sonoma County forests react to fire. I managed fuel reduction projects on Calabazas for months, mostly working with youth crews – it was gratifying to contribute to the Preserve’s fire resilience while preparing our next generation of conservation professionals.

What’s one fact, statistic, or interesting tidbit about land conservation that you enjoy sharing with others?
When I lead public programs, I always share that for every four dollars – the price of a cup of coffee – you spend in Sonoma County, Ag + Open Space receives a penny and that we’ve leveraged all those pennies to protect Calabazas Creek, Taylor Mountain, Jenner Headlands, plus another 123,000+ acres or so to protect wildlife, water, scenery, community, agriculture, and places for us to play – forever. That’s just astounding to me!

What’s your proudest moment working in land conservation and why?
When I was the Preserve Manager for Montini Open Space Preserve, I worked very closely with David Goodison, the city of Sonoma’s Planning Administrator, and California State Park’s award-winning trail designer, Don Beers. We wanted a trail that would be built using the best trail construction practices so that it would be sustainable and require the least amount of maintenance while leading hikers on a wonderful journey of plant life, views, and other outdoor experiences. We laid out that trail during one of the wetter winters – usually in the rain – and devised a plan that was barely visible on the landscape.

While there were some concerns brought up by neighbors, we built relationships with the community and found solutions that, in the end, worked for everyone. I felt so gratified about this project because our team did what was necessary to make the trail work for the community. Every time I go hiking out there, I’m so pleased to see other hikers enjoying it and continued evidence of wildlife use of the preserve – it makes the effort it takes to build a trail all worthwhile.

What compelled you to pick a career in land conservation?
My parents took me to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks when I was quite young and that was that – I knew that I’d have to work protecting and sharing our natural world. I don’t think I ever gave myself any other truly viable career choice. Even growing up in the inner city of Los Angeles, I dreamed of wild places and started backpacking with our high school hiking club. I delighted in being immersed in nature and found a wonderful challenge in the arduousness of the journey. My first job out of college was as an interpretive Ranger at Yosemite National Park. When that job ended, I pestered the Chief of Planning for California State Parks until he created an internship for me, and have continued working in conservation to this day.

I deeply respect the balance that the natural world provides for our individual spiritual and physical growth and well-being as well as for the health of our global ecosystem. I can’t imagine working in a field other than conservation.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor and why?
My vice is salty and greasy, and in that category, I can never resist well-crafted truffle fries (lousy truffle fries are so disappointing). However, whenever I see a FatFace mango sticky rice popsicle, I have to have one. Their mango ice cream with the sweet and chewy rice is delicious and maybe because I grew up eating rice every day, I’ll always love rice.