An Interview with Diane Cooley
Your spirit is at home in certain places
This article originally appeared in our newsletter, Landmarks, Winter 2008
Diane Cooley was the first recipient of the Land Trust’s Conservationist of the Year award in 2007. Six years ago she and her husband Don donated an easement on 680 acres of grazing land on their Circle P Ranch. We are now working to finalize an easement on 360 acres of prime farmland they own in the Pajaro Valley. Diane has helped protect the Santa Monica Mountains, Nisene Marks State Park, and Elkhorn Slough. Our Development Director Stephen Slade talked with her in January.
Why do you care so much? You have other options than being generous.
Because it’s what life’s about. Life’s about using whatever is at hand in the most productive way you can. Whatever it is, a talent, a business. You have to use your gift to have the gift. It’s not just giving away. I learn about life by interacting in a productive way. We do it for ourselves, but frequently it benefits others. I shouldn’t get credit for doing what I enjoy doing. It’s my thing and I’m lucky to be able to do it.
What is it about the land that attracts you? I know you grew up on the land, but others grew up on land and don’t have the same connection you do.
I love the land. The land was my companion. I didn’t have brothers or sisters. Wherever I have been – in Arizona, Connecticut, all over – I adored it. I’ve always kept a relationship with place. I care about the place and through it learn about people. If you’re lucky, and I have been, your spirit is at home in certain places.
What has been your family’s reaction to your donations?
They’re very supportive and proud, I think, that I can do this. I think my parents would be proud. I wouldn’t want to do anything that went against my heritage.
When Don and I moved back to Santa Cruz, I thought we’d build a big house on the hill at the Circle P. As time went by, we came to realize that we got more by being in the hills without having to live on top of them, with a road and all that. The house would have changed the hills. Having it unchanged was more like having the hills as a friend. Some people buy art, I go for a ride through the countryside. The big adventure, if your basic needs are taken care of, is finding out what brings you joy and doing things that give you a sense of accomplishment. I go to church. I believe we are here to fulfill the gift of life.
What do you say to other landowners who might be thinking about an easement donation?
I start out talking to them about the tax advantages. About programs to compensate them for giving up their development rights. They can hold aside pieces of the land for their children to build on. A lot of interest is in protecting the family heritage, so you want to be able to set aside land for your children or grandchildren. Those are the technical, legal, and material matters. It also can help with estate planning by getting everyone involved, rather than just leaving things in a will, which can lead to family fights.
What’s your long view? People today, especially younger people, can feel overwhelmed by things like climate change.
Every generation has its challenge and everyone thinks it could be the end of the world. My generation had Hitler. Your generation had the nuclear threat. What saves the world is ethics and principles in each individual. And you need to exercise those things regularly. Life is a marathon. Run it in a beautiful place! I get a great deal from nature, just inhaling nature.
We have been given this wonderful land. We have been given the opportunity to care for it. Stewardship is a profound principle. Some birders were out on our land doing the New Year’s bird count. I asked them what they saw and they said, “We saw something wonderful.” And they listed the birds they’d seen, but then they said what was wonderful. “It was just as good as it was last year.” In an era where things seem to be disappearing all the time, that is something. Just as good as it was last year. That’s stewardship, caring for what we’ve been given.
Another thing. If I hadn’t worked the land, I wouldn’t appreciate it the same way. Feeding chickens, hoeing the lettuce, packing apples. I did these things when I was 12 to 18 years old. I didn’t do them as well as the people who regularly did them, but I felt great doing something productive with the land. That’s a big part of my respect for the land and respect for the people who work the land. It’s a profession and it is a love, a calling. Saving land is also saving the people who work it. •