Who We Are

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 1.400-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

 

richard popchakRichard 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 the Monterey Bay area in 1985. A long tenure in the tech industry imparted Richard with the sales, marketing, communications, and development skills that help increase the reach of the 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.




Daniela CervantesDaniela Cervantes, Youth in Wilderness Program Manager, grew up in Greenfield, CA where her most formative memories and milestones were grounded in the hum of the Arroyo Seco and sunsets erupting over the Santa Lucia mountains. While hiking and camping in the California central coast were consistent family traditions throughout her upbringing, Daniela identified her spark for outdoor education through immersive backpacking experiences as a Youth in Wilderness (YiW) program participant while in high school. Daniela earned her BA in Ethnic Studies and Theater and Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley while serving as a YiW Field Instructor while in school. Daniela is passionate about connecting central coast youth to opportunities for inner growth, empowerment, knowledge of self, and greater connection nestled in the wonders of the Ventana and Silver Peak Wildernesses.

 

Krikor AndonianKrikor Andonian, Field Programs Director, is a plant ecologist and field naturalist. He earned his PhD from UC Santa Cruz and has taught university courses on biology, ecology, evolution, botany and has led groups of students in remote wilderness to study ecological research methods and conservation. Krikor’s broader interests include anthropology, natural history, and wildcrafting medicinal and edible plants. He has been visiting and studying the Ventana region for nearly 20 years and is very excited to be a part of the VWA team.





Jennifer-HewittJennifer Hewitt, Business Manager, grew up in the Midwest and then headed West. She was raised by parents who traveled and relocated often so she learned how to adapt and connect with wild places and people at a very young age. The many places that she called home offered an escape to the outdoors and knowledge of the backcountry. Jennifer and her family have settled in California for the past 12 years and they can be found deep in the redwoods or spending the day at the beach. Jennifer has spent the last 20 years working in the outdoor industry. Most recently, she managed Patagonia’s 1% For the Planet environmental programs regionally in California and Hawaii. Jennifer is also a board member of PangeaSeed Foundation, Seawalls Artist for Oceans Program since 2018.



Gordon JohnsonGordon Johnson: A six-year residence in Palo Colorado Canyon gave Gordon the opportunity to explore what was then the Ventana Primitive Area. He is a co-founder of the VWA and an early board member who worked to support the development of the 2002 Big Sur Wilderness and Conservation Act. He also served as proposal coordinator for the California Wild Heritage Coalition (CWHC), dedicated to wilderness expansion around the state. Following his time at the CWHC, he founded the California Wilderness Project (CWP) and served as its Director. The CWP focused on a variety of state and federal wilderness issues including assisting in the creation of the Limekiln State Wilderness. The restoration of the Milpitas SIA is of great interest of him. An avid photographer, he will most often be carrying his Nikon when in the field.

 


Ventana Wilderness Alliance Board of Directors (all-volunteer)

 

david jacobsDavid Jacobs, President, 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.

 

 

 

tom hopkinsTom Hopkins, Treasurer, 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.

 

 

 

maria ferdinMaria 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 macgowanBetsy 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.

 

 

Dottie 2 Dottie Massey, Director, has wilderness in her blood. Born and raised in southern Monterey County, she spent her childhood hiking and camping in the Los Padres National Forest and along the Big Sur coast. Her happy place is where the wilderness meets the sea and she sought out the VWA in order to become active in the preservation of the masterpiece that is the Ventana Wilderness. For 30 years, Dottie has worked in the produce industry and is now managing exportation of fresh vegetables for International Produce Group in Salinas. She is grateful that international business provides the opportunity to explore other parts of the world, which only serves to reinforce her belief that there is no more beautiful place on earth than the public lands of the Big Sur backcountry.

 

 

mackenzie-littleMackenzie Little, Director, is a lifelong Monterey native and currently serves as a trusted philanthropic advisor at the Community Foundation for Monterey County. She earned a B.A. in Recording Arts from Chico State University and has led successful youth programs for the City of Seaside and San Carlos Cathedral. Despite growing up mere miles from the Ventana Wilderness, opportunities to explore that big backyard were never presented to her as a child; it wasn’t until adulthood that she cultivated a love for the land. Nowadays, when she’s not at work you can find her running the Monterey Bay Recreation Trail, at Sanctuary Rock Climbing Gym, and soaking up as much of the Big Sur backcountry as she can.

 

 

ben-bruceBen Bruce, Director, is better known as Mr. Ben by the hundreds of students at Community Partnership for Youth (CPY); he has been deeply involved in CPY’s youth mentorship program for the past 20 years. Beginning as a Middle School and later High School Leadership Program participant, he returned to his community to work for CPY after graduating from UC Davis in 2010. Today Ben serves as the organization’s Program Director. In his quest to provide youth with meaningful experiences, he discovered VWA’s Youth in Wilderness program which in turn inspired his own passion for backpacking and commitment to our local public lands. Ben also serves as a Board Member with the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), Steering Partner for the Bright Futures Education Partnership, and volunteer guitar instructor with Guitars Not Guns Monterey County.

 

greg meyerGreg 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.

 

 

leor-pantilatLeor Pantilat, Director, is a profound Ventana Wilderness enthusiast. He is captivated and inspired by virtually all aspects of the land, from the coast to the interior, and from the rugged canyons to the summits. He is passionate about adventure running to the most rugged and remote corners of the Ventana and throughout California. Leor's adventures have led him to catalog hundreds of waterfalls in Big Sur. He also enjoys nature photography and meticulously tracking weather models. Leor understands that access to public lands facilitates his adventures and his deep connection with the land, and is committed to ensuring the protection and expansion of public lands and accessibility for the benefit of all. He earned a B.A. from Rice University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. Leor currently practices law while residing in San Carlos, California.