POR Martha Cochran March 22, 2009
Love of the land
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — When Martha Cochran recently set out to write a book, she found her subjects to be people who generally have little to say about themselves.
Fortunately for Cochran, they are a lot more forthcoming about their land. And it is their love for their land, their relationship to it and their desire to preserve it for posterity’s sake that are the subjects of her book.
Cochran, of Glenwood Springs, is the executive director of the Carbondale-based Aspen Valley Land Trust, the oldest land trust in Colorado. Her new book, “Our Place: People and Conservation in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River Valleys,” profiles many of the people who have worked with Cochran’s land trust to put in place conservation easements that protect their properties in perpetuity from development.
The book, a fundraiser for the land trust, was a team effort. It was dreamed up by Aspen-area photographer Lois Abel Harlamert, who traveled from Aspen to De Beque, creating the full-page images of the people celebrated in the book. Cochran wrote short accompanying narratives.
The book’s goal is to create “a permanent, more concrete way to recognize these people who made these huge decisions to conserve their land, because that decision lasts forever,” Cochran said.
“It was also a way to introduce or to tell people about what AVLT does and tell (the landowners’) story through their land rather than telling about it through a brochure or PR piece,” Cochran said.
Cochran interviewed everyone from wealthy Aspenites to descendants of homestead families. All are linked by the value they place on saving rural landscapes.
Cochran found that otherwise shy people loved to talk about their prized acreage — the water that keeps it green, the seasons that give it variety, the animals that draw sustenance from it.
Cochran knew many of these people already, but loved learning more about them. She discovered that one landowner, Charlotte Hood, prized her pet pig, and that an area doctor,
Gary Knaus, had grown up on a Rifle-area ranch and had a veterinarian for a father.
In many ways Cochran was a natural when it comes both to running a land trust and writing about those who preserve their land. She grew up in Missouri on a farm that next year will have been in her family for 150 years. She ended up working in journalism, coming to Glenwood Springs right after college in 1974, and holding positions including publisher of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
She also served four years on Glenwood Springs City Council and six years on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. In those capacities, she helped pursue open space initiatives.
She took her current job almost seven years ago.
“It’s just something that was so basic to what I thought was important, it seemed like a good opportunity and a good match,” Cochran said.
During Cochran’s tenure there, the Aspen Valley Land Trust has grown about 500 percent in terms of the property it protects by setting up and holding easements for landowners. It has about 30,000 acres in easements. An increasing amount of its focus is west of Glenwood Springs. Much of Pitkin County is public land, whereas Garfield County has much more ranchland that has the potential to be protected.
These days, Cochran also spends a good amount of time serving on the state’s Conservation Easement Oversight Commission. It was created to prevent some of the abuses that have occurred in connection with conservation easements in Colorado, such as inflating land values for tax purposes.
“Clearly there’s been enormous abuse in the program and there’s been really no oversight,” Cochran said.
Another concern for conservation easements is making sure that the organizations that hold them follow through with land stewardship and protection. The Aspen Valley Land Trust is among only 2 percent of land trusts nationwide that are accredited under a process set up in response to concerns about abuse of easement programs.
“Someday I foresee that only accredited governments or land trusts can hold easements,” Cochran said.
Cochran is married to Steve Mills, and daughter Sarah is a sophomore in college. Cochran also is a first-time grandmother, after her stepson and his wife had a child last year.
Cochran and Mills spend spare time in a cabin near Glenwood Springs that incorporates wood from old agricultural structures, including those on her family’s Missouri farm.
“They made their barns to last forever,” Cochran muses.
With her help, the same can be said for thousands of acres of rural western Colorado landscapes.