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Legendary Locals: O.C. Go-Green Activist Employee of "Heaven on Earth"
by: Debbie L. Sklar
Director of Research and Education, Sandy DeSimone.
Director of Research and Education, Sandy DeSimone.

Sandy DeSimone is looking out for the environment and loving every second.

As the Director of Research and Education at Audubon California’s 4000-acre Starr Ranch Sanctuary in Trabuco Canyon, she works (and lives there, too) in a beautiful place that many in the O.C. don’t know about.

Starr Ranch located in southeast Orange County has a mission and that is “to offer innovative approaches to land management and environmental education that will influence the way Orange County citizens appreciate, conserve, and manage wild lands. We seek to instill a love of nature through education programs that involve people of all ages in wildlife research and to provide a model of rigorous, sustainable land management through applied research.”

Although DeSimone became a primary school teacher and taught for 3 years before her current gig, she has always been interested in the environment. She holds a B.S. in Education, a Master’s in Biology, and Ph.D. in Ecology

“Because of my interest in birds, the principal at my elementary school [she taught third grade] sent me to Audubon’s adult camp in Maine. It changed my life,” she says.

In terms of her role at the sanctuary, she says it is varied. For instance, she supervises nine staff members, eight of whom work on a seasonal basis and all but one live in the historic buildings on Starr Ranch.

In addition, she says a five person field crew does upland non-chemical weed control and rare habitat restoration. Two interns work on riparian weed control and restoration.

“We test techniques in experiments and also monitor progress. And we have an unusual education program that integrates our two biologists’ research into education programs, Starr Ranch Field Ecology Programs,” she says. “Our education programs give kids and adults a hands-on experience in wildlife research (actual or simulated). I’m also in some conservation partnerships to coordinate volunteer monitoring of a seriously declining bird species, the Coastal Cactus Wren, and I initiated a new group of adjacent land stewards in South Orange County, South County Land Stewards (SCLS). SCLS is coordinating a volunteer fire watch with homeowners from communities adjacent to our preserves.”

What makes Starr Ranch so special and such a great place to work, as well as visit is that it is like being someplace else, DeSimone says.

“People say that coming down into Starr Ranch is like going back in time. The buildings are historic, built during the ranching days in the 1930s. And the landscape is relatively pristine and undisturbed,” she says.

For those who aren’t familiar with Starr Ranch, it is like a hidden jewel, but only somewhat accessible.

“Access to the Ranch is limited by the adjacent gated community but we have lots of programs for kids, adults, and families. And our volunteer Weed Warrior program is drawing 50 people on volunteer Saturdays,” she says.

DeSimone clearly loves what she’s doing and it shows.

“My work is my passion. I love what I do and my work has gotten me through some difficult times in my life,” she says. “I love it all -- restoration, education, conservation. Living at Starr Ranch is great.”

One person she credits and looks up to is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, because he was innovative and visionary when he founded the company in the 1970s.

“When I first switched career paths, my mentor was the director of the nature center in Connecticut where I first switched from being a city person -- I lived and taught in Manhattan -- to a ‘nature person.’ He knew birds by sounds and the scientific names of wildflowers. I learned a lot from him,” she shares.

Outside of work, DeSimone is married to Pete, and enjoys hiking and gardening.

Interested in learning more … The best way to get involved is to come to the programs; volunteer with wildlife monitoring and weed control projects, DeSimone says.

Visit to learn more.


Debbie L. Sklar is a 20+year journalism veteran residing in Southern California, where she is a writer, columnist and editor for many local, regional and national publications. Sklar may be reached via e-mail at

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