Pictured: Melissa Baffa interacting with cattail seeds at the Ventura Land Trust’s Big Rock preserve on Aug. 26, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.
by Kimberly Rivers
“That’s when the fire in my belly really started.”
Melissa Baffa glows when she talks about nature, conservation and where those pieces meet in education. She recently guided the Ventura County Reporter on an exploration of the Big Rock Preserve on the Ventura River, just below Foster Park in Ventura. It’s one of several properties owned and managed by the Ventura Land Trust (VLT), where Baffa is just three weeks into serving as the organization’s new executive director.
She shared about her background and desire to build connection with nature across the community, noting that it’s good for both people and the natural world for the two to be tethered.
Blackboards and biology
Baffa holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from California Lutheran University, and a single-subject teaching credential from California State University, Northridge. But her focus on biology wasn’t always the plan. In her final year at Agoura High School, her path for college shifted direction.
“I thought I was going to go to college and major in English . . . I love language, writing . . . I was going to be an English teacher.” She registered for a biology class in her senior year to “sop up a few more credits.”
When the teacher brought back a “live plankton tow” and put some drops of water under a microscope, Baffa’s mind shifted.
“When I saw all the plankton swimming around and moving, I was hooked. From that moment on I knew I was going to study biology.”
Nevertheless, she still pursued a career in education, and was a classroom teacher for 10 years, teaching seventh and eighth grades at Sinaloa Middle School in Simi Valley, and marine biology for the Upward Bound program for high school students through CLU.
“I left teaching when I started having a family . . . and went into nonprofit work . . . it offered more flexibility.”
Where nature and education meet
Biology and education meet naturally in the nonprofit world, where Baffa has served since 2008.
In every position she has held, she has worked at the nexus of nature and education, where the human connection to the natural world moves and flexes in response to the “muscle” of education, which helps to bolster our understanding of the environment. She worked with the Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast at the organization’s property at the base of Sulphur Mountain near Highway 150, then most recently with the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, where she served as development officer in charge of foundations and corporate relations.
“I had always loved nature passionately,” she recalls. Her experience growing up outdoors, hiking, camping and just “exploring,” fed her inquiry into biology, where she gained a deep “understanding and knowing of how things worked” in nature. “Even if I didn’t know exactly, having enough information to try and guess, why is this, this way?”
In the months just before the pandemic, the VLT incorporated under its umbrella two local educational programs — Once Upon a Watershed and Ventura Wild — offering many touchpoints to nature for children in various settings.
Boosting VLT’s signal
Baffa’s skills in development in the nonprofit sector will be valuable in continuing to “raise the profile” of the Ventura Land Trust in the coming years, one of her key priorities. She points out that the organization changed its name a few years ago (it was formerly the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy) and many in the community aren’t aware of the reach of the organization, which now manages properties across the county, even in Simi Valley and Moorpark.
She points to Harmon Canyon, which the Ventura Land Trust acquired last year and has since opened to the public: She says many people aren’t sure whether it’s a county or city property. The VLT owns and manages the land, so technically it is private property, but the VLT intends to preserve it for the public’s use in perpetuity.
Another property underutilized by the public is Willoughby Preserve, near the estuary at the mouth of the Ventura River. It’s accessed off the bike path near the small parking lot on Main Street near the river. While the gate is usually closed, she said people can “duck through. I’d like to see more people exploring there.” Historically there’s been an issue with homeless encampments in the area and Baffa recommends visiting with “a buddy,” but the VLT also has a steward who patrols the area frequently.
Another issue at both preserves along the river is the invasive arundo, and educating the public about the plant, and the need to remove it, is part of the “storytelling” of the organization. The VLT has spent years working to eradicate the “thirsty” plant, which Baffa says is just like grass, sucking up water. Everytime a big rain comes, however rare that might be, it will bring the plant downstream again to take root.
Projecting ahead into her first few years with the VLT, Baffa says that “finessing” the strategic plan for the organization in light of recent rapid growth is essential. She explains that the strategic plan is an important way for an organization to tell its story to the community it serves.
Many times, connections with the natural world get lost in translation or feel distant and remote. Baffa has been a part of breaking down that remoteness with an expedition to the deep sea.
In 2016 she was awarded a fellowship with the Ocean Exploration Trust to travel aboard an exploration vessel looking into the ocean depths with a deep diving submarine. She was part of the communications team that ensured people around the world could submit questions and comments directly to the divers. It was an experience of a lifetime.
“It was my responsibility and an incredible opportunity to go out on the ship and man the communication station [during the deep sea dives] then to help bring in the public, who were sending in questions and comments via our portal, into the conversation.” Her role was to ensure that the public felt “they were a part of it, more than just passive observers . . . [to] interact with our team conducting the dive.”
Baffa watched along with people around the world as the exploration literally put light on habitats and creatures that had “never had light on them, never had human eyes on them before.” A powerful part of that experience was in witnessing “their wonder, vicariously. I was in the same enthralled state of wonder.”
She says she “gets goosebumps every time I talk about it, this globally instantaneous connection,” describing it as the “closest thing to a religious experience. Some people are really lucky to have had those kinds of experiences in nature.” She credits the vision of deep sea explorer Dr. Robert Ballard, president of the Ocean Exploration Trust, “to envision that and actually make it happen.”
“Exploring the deep sea can be so abstract,” she says, but by having storytellers like Baffa act as a conduit between the science in progress and the public, an interpretation occurs that builds connection.
This is the approach she brings to her work locally focused on connecting people to the natural world where they live.
Baffa lives with her family just up the river from Big Rock. She has found that the diversity of species that are drawn to the riparian areas along the Ventura River throughout the year make it an attractive place to explore and live, even for the human species.
“I personally have a selfish vested interest in seeing wildlife thrive in this area, it’s part of the reason we moved here,” she says. When they first moved, she had a photo album on social media she titled “New House.”
“One of my friends commented, ‘only you would have a New House album that doesn’t actually have any house photos, only bugs, frogs and wildlife,’” a laughing Baffa admits, adding, “that does sound like me.”
Baffa pauses to notice the sounds by the river: a red-headed woodpecker knocking on a nearby oak, or the rustling of the wind through the willows and cattails. A chirping that sounds like a bird, but that is actually a ground squirrel calling out a warning that could be about the raptor flying overhead, or maybe a bobcat or other predator we can’t see.
Going beyond sight to sound: According to Baffa, exploring nature with all our senses is a key part of building a strong connection with the natural world.
Whether she’s fostering connections with a global audience through the power of technology, or helping a single person appreciate a local tide pool or riparian community, Baffa is excited to keep building those bonds in the coming years with the team at the Ventura Land Trust.
“[Nature’s] good for us . . . and it’s good for nature,” she says. “It’s that cliche story, right? The Lorax — who’s going to speak for the trees? If we don’t have people who are passionate about nature, who’s going to speak up for it? With the issues our planet is facing, we need those people now more than ever.”
Ventura Land Trust, 3451 Foothill Road, #201, Ventura, 805-643-8044, www.venturalandtrust.org.