Conservationist, entrepreneur and multimillionaire Paul Bonderson Jr. doesn’t fit into the stereotypical box that most people have for hunters – Billy Bob who never left the backwoods. He assured me that most hunters he knows don’t.
Bonderson, 63, a graduate of Sacramento’s Encina Preparatory High School, became president of the board of the national Ducks Unlimited conservation group in June. Founded by hunter-conservationists, the organization pours tens of millions of dollars annually into restoring, preserving and managing wetlands for waterfowl.
Bonderson said the mission is critical, not only in California, which has lost 95 percent of its wetlands, but all across the nation. From 2001-2006, Bonderson acquired roughly 2,500 acres of land in Butte County that he has been restoring to its natural habitat.
“When we started out, it was absolutely laser-level rice fields,” Bonderson said. “What we do is run tractors through it, and we do a topological map and regrade the property to have swales that are 30 inches deep and plateaus of 16 to 18 inches, 12 inches, 8 inches and islands up to 2 feet high. … It provides different types of habitat to produce different types of vegetation, which produces different types of bugs.”
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To fund the project, Bonderson has used much of his personal fortune, amassed after the initial public offering of Brocade Communication Systems, a Silicon Valley-based company that he co-founded in 1995 and took public on his birthday in 1999. He sought out conservation easements from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the American Farmland Trust and the California Wildlife Conservation Board that will prevent development harmful to waterfowl or farming in perpetuity.
Rather than accept payment for the easements, he said, he donated them. “But I get a tax deduction for that,” he quickly added.
The project is inspired by Bonderson’s love of California’s wild spaces – bred into him on fishing and hunting trips with his “Pappy” and his Dad. If Bonderson’s name sounds familiar, it may be that you recall his father, Paul R. Bonderson, who has a state building named for him at 901 P St. in downtown Sacramento.
The senior Bonderson, a civil engineer, pushed the state Legislature to recognize that Californians needed to be concerned not only about water pollution but about water quality. His pioneering work led to a change of mission and ultimately a change of name for the state agency charged with it. It became the State Water Resources Control Board.
Bonderson said that his father cast a shadow so long that he decided not to pursue the career of civil engineer: “I did not want to follow in my Dad’s footsteps. I could never achieve what he achieved.”
Instead, Bonderson earned an electrical engineering degree from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He started out working for Intel when its revenue stood at just $100 million a year and rode it like a rocket ship until it was grossing $10 billion a year. He then took a posting at Sun Microsystems when it just broke $100 million in revenue and remained with the company until it, too, crashed the $10 billion mark.
At Sun, Bonderson established himself as one of very few experts on building data storage systems that operated using the high-speed networking technology known as Fibre Channel. At the time, various technologies were duking it out for superiority in this arena, each trying to establish itself as the optimal network to hook up the huge servers that allow everyone to store and access Internet data.
Venture capitalist Seth Neiman, a partner in Crosspoint Venture Partners, told me that he decided to stake his money on Fibre Channel. He had worked at Sun and knew Bonderson from his time there, he said, and he approached him about leaving his highly paid position with Sun to become the first employee in a startup focused on establishing Fibre Channel as the top networking technology.
It was 1995, Bonderson recalled, and he had one child in college and one in high school – not the ideal time to slash a salary. He and his wife, Sandi Bonderson, had never once jumped out of a plane, Bonderson said, but it was like, together, they suddenly decided to try BASE jumping from El Capitan.
“Paul was the first employee of that new company, Brocade,” Neiman said. “For years, Paul was the primary force in designing the detailed technical program of the business, hiring people, managing them, collaborating with me and another guy named Kumar Malavalli to find the first market and engage the early potential customers, which were all very large corporations, Digital Equipment Corp., Compaq, Sun and the largest computer-makers of the day.”
Bonderson played an instrumental role in making pitches because he knew how to talk to the customers, Neiman said, and ultimately, he became responsible for saying whether the product measured up and could be shipped.
“Brocade is somewhere between a $2.5 billion and $3 billion company now,” said Bonderson, who retired in 2005, “and it’s got 4,700 employees.”
He started getting involved with Ducks Unlimited in 2001 and slowly made the transition from full-time technologist to full-time conservationist. He has booked practically every weekend through February with trips related to the organization’s mission, whether it’s attending a state convention or wooing well-heeled donors and decision-makers or going to board meetings for Ducks Unlimited and its associated organizations.
He pays for all his own travel, lodging and meals, as do all other board members and volunteers of the group. The organization puts 82 cents of every dollar it raises back into wetlands development, he said.
Mark Biddlecomb, the Western region director for Ducks Unlimited, said he likes the fact that Bonderson walks the talk. At Birdhaven Ranch in Butte County, Bonderson has moved tule bulrushes, dense on his neighbor’s slough, onto his property. He’s hired contractors with 90-foot spades to dig up and reposition willow trees, and he’s planted and grown thousands of others as twigs in 15-gallon pots because they’ll take more easily when he transplants them.
Already, Bonderson said, the property has become a home and way station for countless species of birds. One year, he said, they hatched 2,614 wood ducks from the 200 boxes on his property. It makes it a “duck hunter’s Disneyland,” he said, but there also spaces on the property that are sanctuaries, and birds tend to know that.