Saving Our Outside Lands

news_ForestLand Trust of Santa Cruz County goes forward with 20-year conservation plan

Stephen Slade can remember a time just three decades ago when Campbell was a tiny rural community, reachable only by rough dirt roads. Terry Corwin grew up in Southern California, surrounded by orange groves that have almost entirely vanished.

“Most people that are growing up in California,” Slade says, “will have a memory of a landscape that is going to be completely altered. I grew up in Modesto and when I go back there now it’s like, ‘Where am I?’ The Central Valley is rapidly changing.”

Corwin offers another example: “Santa Clara Valley, just one generation ago, used to be called ‘the valley of the heart’s delight’ because it was all orchards, and they blossomed in the spring. Now, that’s become Silicon Valley. It’s a great economic engine, but it does make us realize that what we have can be lost in a generation.”

Corwin and Slade are more acutely aware than most of just how rapidly the California landscape is changing due to human intervention. Corwin is the Executive Director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and Slade the Deputy Director; the nonprofit has been working on environmental preservation issues since 1978.

“What we care about is protecting the spectacular beauty and the working lands and the natural resources of Santa Cruz County,” Corwin explains. “That’s the overarching goal. The problem becomes how best to do that.” The Land Trust sometimes establishes protection for a piece of land by buying it outright and acting as its stewards, as they’ve done with Byrne Forest, the Watsonville Sloughs, Antonelli Pond, the Davenport Bluffs, and other, smaller properties. But more commonly they establish conservation easements with landowners in which the land stays in private hands, and the landowner makes a commitment to keep it in productive use while permanently protecting it from further development.

The Land Trust is currently at the helm of two new and related initiatives, both aimed at preserving Santa Cruz’s natural resources for future generations. The first is Senate Bill 211, authored by State Sen. Joe Simitian and co-authored by Assembly members Bill Monning and Anna Caballero. The bill would allow Santa Cruz County residents to vote on the establishment of an Open Space district within the county lines. Put simply, the term is a legal distinction; if approved, the measure would provide funding and resources for certain parts of the county to be designated as Open Space, and thus protected from development and reserved for certain designated uses, like agriculture or recreation.

More importantly for the Land Trust, it would allow them to apply for federal, state, and foundation grants related to conservation efforts, money that they say is sorely needed. Senator Simitian agrees. “Anyone who takes a moment to look around Santa Cruz County would say that it’s really an extraordinary place,” he says. “The notion here is that an Open Space district would allow local voters to preserve that sense of place that is unique to the county … Done right, an Open Space district can strengthen the protections for working lands, including agricultural and forest lands. The Land Trust is concerned about protecting both.”

But crafting the wording of the proposed measure has been tricky. Both the City of Watsonville and conservation groups from outside the county have already voiced concerns about the bill. Watsonville wanted to be sure there was representation from the city or from South County, then the other California conservation groups expressed worry that the changes made to the bill to meet Watsonville’s needs would establish precedents that would not be in the best interests of their own constituencies. These difficulties slowed the passage of the bill, meaning it won’t be available for voters to decide on until 2012 at the earliest.

Still, Assemblymember Monning is confident that everyone’s needs can be met, and that the most serious initial oppositions have been smoothed over. “They raised very legitimate concerns. By working through it, we can actually fortify the integrity of the project. Now is exactly the time to be addressing these questions.”

The Open Space initiative is one piece of the Land Trust’s larger project, the 20-year Conservation Blueprint, which seeks to identify the most vulnerable areas in the county and work out the best way to protect them long-term, even if they’re not currently under threat of being developed. “There’s a tendency for people to sometimes think that what’s not developed is protected,” Corwin says. ”That is, until something starts to happen there, then it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, how could that happen?’ Two-thirds of Santa Cruz County has no permanent protection.”

She adds that the Land Trust’s overall 20-year vision is simply meant to “hold the line,” so that the grandchildren of current generations can enjoy the same homeland sights. To do so, she says there are several things that require changes. “We’d like to see an improvement [on] issues like the wetlands and water quality and water supply,” she says. “We’d also like to see an improvement in the stewardship of lands that are already protected. That’s not to say that we’re anti-growth. Growth is a reality. But as a community, we really should protect the most important resources that we have, and direct our growth away from that.”

Both Corwin and Slade agree that now is a challenging time to be talking with the public about conservation issues. “When we started this, we weren’t in this recession,” Slade says. “Talking about the next generation when people have pressing, urgent needs is very difficult.”

But Corwin points out that it is imperative to look ahead even when present times are tough. “We’re taking a long-term view here,” she says. “If it takes two years, four years, six years, eight years, 10 years, whatever, it’s a vision that we want to get right. We want to be patient and ultimately be successful.”

Slade feels that, overall, each generation is more receptive to hearing a conservation-oriented message, as environmentalism becomes more and more widely understood. “1978 was early in the modern environmental movement,” he says. “It’s just more mainstream now, the notion of protecting the environment. People understand that clean water, for example, doesn’t just happen by magic. It does make what we’re doing easier in that sense.”

People here, Corwin says, value the unique nature of the county, and are both passionate and proactive about protecting it as does the activism-centered ethos of Santa Cruz as a whole. As she puts it, “The Santa Cruz County community is incredibly engaged. We feel entitled and want to be at the table in making these types of decisions. We appreciate that more than ever, and we look forward to making this work for the community at large.”

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