Escondido Creek Conservancy creates new LeoMar Preserve in Olivenhain

The new LeoMar Preserve.
(Richard Murphy)

The Escondido Creek Conservancy recently saved 79 acres of open space in Olivenhain, continuing its commitment to creating wildlife corridors in North San Diego County.

The recent purchase of the land adjacent to the Gaty reservoir in Olivenhain will serve as the centerpiece of the Conservancy’s newest wildlife sanctuary, called LeoMar Preserve, named to honor Conservancy founders and longtime volunteers Leonard Wittwer and Martha Blane.

“Because of Leonard and Martha’s devotion to the Escondido Creek watershed, a piece of wild California will be preserved for all time, and will thrive, at the LeoMar Preserve,” said Ann Van Leer, the Conservancy’s executive director.

The LeoMar Preserve is located in the lower Escondido Creek watershed in the Olivenhain community of Encinitas, just past the new community One Oak. From the hills, its views stretch out to Carlsbad and to Rancho Santa Fe.

Preserving a property like this provides a break in development and helps with dark skies as well as creates a viable habitat for wildlife to migrate through to meet their basic needs for breeding, shelter and food.

“It’s a piece of California that isn’t easy to find in other places,” Van Leer said of the unique Coastal Sage Scrub habitat that has a limited range from Ventura to Northern Baja—she said at least 90% of Coastal Sage Scrub habitat has been lost to development.

The sensitive habitat is home to several threatened and endangered species including the coastal California gnatcatcher, “a tiny bird with a tiny range and not a lot of room to survive,” Wittwer said.

“The gnatcatcher gets saved but so does the whiptail lizard, the bobcat and mule deer,” he continued. “These kinds of preserves give them the opportunity to live their lives.”

The LeoMar Preserve was named for Martha Blane and Leonard Wittwer.
(Richard Murphy)

The “Leo” of the newly named LeoMar, Wittwer has been on the board since 1991 and has been central to the growth of the Conservancy’s land protection program over the last 30 years, currently serving as board president. His wife Martha served as the very first board president.

Both Leonard and Martha have devoted thousands of volunteer hours to the Conservancy over the past three decades.

“Leonard and Martha understand the intrinsic value of the native coastal SoCal sage scrub and chaparral habitats that once covered most of southern California,” said Betsy Keithley, a member of the Escondido Creek Conservancy board of directors in a release. “They have committed a great part of their lives to ensuring that as much as possible continues to thrive. It is an honor for the Escondido Creek Conservancy to be able to name a preserve after them.”

Escrow closed on the property on May 7. The $2,054,000 purchase was made possible through a grant awarded to the Conservancy from the State of California Wildlife Conservation Board and a sub-grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s section 6 of the Federal Endangered Species Act.

The Escondido Creek Conservancy land team’s first day on the property was June 11--their chatter and laughter echoed on a quiet morning as they climbed back up a small slope carrying an old sink someone had ditched. A red tailed hawk soared overhead and as if on cue, called out a hello.

“It’s very exciting when we start a new project like this,” Van Leer said. “We did it, it’s ours, This is a pretty special piece of property. It makes us all very happy.”

The team will now get to work conducting wildlife surveys and doing a full assessment of the property. They will do site clean ups and restoration projects such as remediating trails and invasive species removal.

Van Leer said the Conservancy will come up for a plan for the property and while there may be opportunities for recreational access or guided hikes, the focus will be on preserving nature: “First and foremost, it’s conservation land,” Wittwer said.

Over the next few years, the Conservancy will be protecting additional properties and adding them to the LeoMar Preserve, managing the preserve for the betterment of California’s threatened and endangered species.

“Partners like the Escondido Creek Conservancy are key to helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fulfill its conservation mission,” said Jonathan Snyder, assistant field supervisor for the Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife office in a release. “Conservation of this habitat will ensure plants and wildlife in the area continue to persist.”

Visit to learn more about the Conservancy.