In 1998, the newly-formed organization inventoried lands within the Los Padres National Forest to determine their suitability for federal designation as Wilderness. The VWA presented their findings to US Congressman Sam Farr, thereby providing a basis for the Big Sur Wilderness and Conservation Act, signed into law in December, 2002. The VWA then initiated projects to benefit the now-expanded Wilderness, its visitors and the wild species that call it home.
VWA volunteers have since dedicated tens of thousands of hours to stewardship and advocacy projects. While most reside in the Central Coast and San Francisco Bay Area, VWA’s 800-plus members hail from 26 US States and all walks of life. Initially an all-volunteer organization, VWA hired its first paid staff member in 2008 and its first Executive Director in 2010.
Ventana Wilderness Alliance Staff
Mike Splain, Executive Director, began volunteering with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance in May of 2003. He became a part-time staff member in July, 2008 and was promoted to full-time Executive Director in April of 2012. A native of Maryland, Mike relocated to California in 1991 and has since pursued wild lands conservation as a supporter, volunteer or staff member for various advocacy organizations, including Forests Forever, Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society. Mike holds a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz and currently serves as Wilderness Chair of the Sierra Club, Ventana Chapter.
Richard Popchak, Communications and Development Director, served on the VWA Board of Directors between from 2005- 2011. A native Pennsylvanian, Richard earned a BA in History at Indiana University of Pennsylvania before moving to Santa Cruz in 1985. A long tenure in the tech industry imparted Richard with the sales, marketing, communications and development skills necessary to increase the reach of the nonprofit VWA. He is editor of the VWA newsletter, Ventana Wilderness Watch. Richard especially enjoys exploring the Milpitas Special Interest Area and the Silver Peak Wilderness.
Trevor Willits, Stewardship Program Coordinator, gained a strong appreciation for the outdoors growing up in the redwoods of remote Northern California. At 18 he joined the California Conservation Corps and participated in the AmeriCorps Backcountry Trails program where he spent 22 consecutive weeks learning to maintain trails in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2010 with a BS in Earth Science and quickly returned to conservation work with the American Conservation Experience (ACE.) After nearly three years of leading ACE crews on trails and other conservation projects throughout California, he turned cloak and joined the Ventana Wilderness Alliance.
Toan Do, Youth in Wilderness Program Manager, first discovered public lands on hikes between courses at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There he studied art, politics and journalism and developed a passion for social justice that remains a guiding force to this day. After college, Toan attended law school and worked with a small San Francisco tech start-up. He developed a love for backpacking as an avid international traveler to wild places like the Ladakhi region of India and the Scottish Highlands. Toan is excited to draw upon his experiences to grow the Youth in Wilderness program and continue introducing underserved students to the Big Sur backcountry. When not at the office, Toan stays active surfing, bicycling, running or hiking with his dog, Mo.
Amy Patten, Administrative Assistant, earned her BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she studied lizard behavior and genetics. Amy's career has focused on the conservation and habitat ecology of reptiles, amphibians and birds. Field work has taken her to many remote and wild places around California, including the backcountry of Yosemite National Park, Lassen National Forest, and the Mojave National Preserve. Amy joined the VWA in 2016 and is excited to contribute her natural history experience to real-time public lands conservation.
Ventana Wilderness Alliance Board of Directors (all-volunteer)
Tom Hopkins, President, is a passionate advocate for our public wildlands. He was born and raised in San Jose and developed a love for the Big Sur backcountry in his formative years. He has lived in Santa Cruz for the past 40 years and he now splits his time between the eastern Sierra and the Monterey Bay area. Extensive business and private sector expertise have aided in his completion of numerous VWA stewardship and advocacy projects. An avid outdoorsman, Tom has been hiking the Big Sur coast and Ventana backcountry since 1967. He is one of five founding members of the VWA Board of Directors.
David Jacobs, Treasurer, has served on the VWA Board of Directors since 2005. David is a San Jose native and Santa Cruz resident since 1985. As a CPA with a BS in Accounting from the University of Southern California, he contributes valuable skills which greatly reduce the VWA’s reliance on outside financial professionals. President of Santa Cruz-based accounting firm Chiorini, Hunt and Jacobs, David has served on the boards of various non-profit organizations, both as an officer and member-at-large. He is an avid hiker, backpacker and mountain biker.
Maria Ferdin, Secretary, began volunteering with the VWA in 2010. In the intervening years she has come to appreciate the unique wilderness qualities of the northern Santa Lucias. As an avid hiker, backpacker and longtime hike organizer for the Monterey Bay Area Hiking Group, Maria loves the backcountry trails and is particularly interested in the nexus between wilderness preservation and public access. She takes particular joy in sharing new and beautiful places with others and serves as both a Trail Crew Leader and USFS/VWA Volunteer Wilderness Ranger. A Registered Environmental Health Specialist for the Monterey County Health Department, Maria graduated from California State University at Monterey Bay with a BS in Earth Systems Science and Policy.
Betsy MacGowan, Director and Trail Crew Chief, has been a VWA member since 2000 and joined the VWA board in 2009. She has enjoyed hiking in Los Padres National Forest since 1981. A lifetime member of the Sierra Club, Betsy co-edited the organization’s Trail Guide to Los Padres National Forest and led outings for its Ventana Chapter from 1988 through 1998. She is a USFS-certified Crosscut Sawyer, and for many years, has participated in trail projects with informal volunteer groups, the Ventana Chapter and the VWA. When not hard at work on the trails, she doubles as a Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Professional, and serves as a Safety Coordinator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Al Budris, Director, is a 33-year bicycle industry veteran, having spent his entire adult life learning the business from the bottom up. He is dedicated to the protection of our public wildlands, believing that this critical legacy must be preserved for future generations. Al has a BA in Business Administration from Golden Gate University and an MBA from San Jose State University. When not lecturing on Finance at California State University at Monterey Bay, he restlessly pursues new business opportunities. In his free time, Al enjoys hiking, trail running, cooking and restoring old Volkswagens and Alfa Romeos. He was a nationally-ranked cyclo-crosser “in his day” and now just rides for the sheer love of it.
Greg Meyer, Director, earned his MA in Environmental Studies at Arizona’s Prescott College. A professional Naturalist with 25 years of experience leading outdoor adventures on five continents, he has introduced young people to the natural world through a vast array of summer camp, State Park and college recreation programs. He is currently a lecturer in the Outdoor Education and Recreation department at California State University, Monterey Bay. Inspired by his leadership, several of Greg’s students have volunteered to assist with wilderness stewardship projects in the Cone Peak and Chews Ridge environs. His expertise has guided the inception and ongoing success of VWA’s Youth in Wilderness program.
Elizabeth Thomas, Director, officially joined the VWA Board in April of 2016. Elizabeth began her career in Washington, DC as an aide to Senator Sherrod Brown, in her home state of Ohio. A passion for land conservation earned her a position at the Peninsula Open Space Trust in Palo Alto, California, where she served as the Grants and Government Affairs Manager from 2010 to 2014. Elizabeth currently works in the renewable energy field, managing projects to engage the public on climate-related issues. She is an avid fan of the outdoors and enjoys biking, hiking, and rock climbing in wild places throughout California.
John Tilley, Director, lives in Monterey with his two sons. He earned an MBA from San Francisco State University and BA from University of Missouri. John is a Senior Vice President with Pinnacle Bank with a multi-decade record of civic service on various boards and ad hoc committees. John's enjoyment of backpacking and concern for wilderness conservation in the Western United States drew him to the Ventana Wilderness Alliance.