Q&A: Long-time Santa Cruz environmentalist, outgoing Land Trust chief talks conservation in county
After nearly 15 years at the Land Trust of Santa Cruz, executive director Stephen Slade is set to retire this summer. Before that, Lookout caught up with the long-time environmentalist about his conservation work, the biggest challenges he faced and the future of conservation in Santa Cruz County.
The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County announced last week that executive director Stephen Slade will retire this summer after more than a dozen years with the organization.
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The Land Trust now protects 16,500 acres of land, much of which was acquired during Slade’s tenure as executive director. A few major projects the group has completed recently include a wildlife crossing on Highway 17 and the acquisition of nearly 500 acres of working farmland and freshwater wetlands in Watsonville, which will soon be available for public access.
Lookout talked with Slade about what he’s learned over his decades of work on conservation in Santa Cruz County, including why outside environmental groups have called Santa Cruz the “most combative” place they ever worked. Here’s what he said (edited for clarity):
Q: What are the biggest differences in doing conservation work in Santa Cruz now as compared to when you started at the Land Trust in 2006?
A: When I first started at the Land Trust, what we mostly heard from people is that we didn’t need any more land conservation. There were plenty of parks in the county, we had Measure J and growth control measures. And so that was the first question I would get in 2006, ‘Why do we need a land trust? Why do we need more conservation?’ You do not hear that anymore because for 12 years we’ve been telling you why we need more conservation.
Q: Why do we need more conservation? Why do we need more protected land, now?
A: I would say that all the land that is now not developed, and you probably think is protected, is not. There’s lots of protections, for example, farmland is protected, you can’t build West of Highway 1 in the Pajaro Valley — (but) all of those are impermanent protections. All it takes is for the Board of Supervisors to change. All it takes is for the Coastal Commission to change.
So, yes, it all looks really good now, it looks really protected. And the way to ensure it stays that way is through conservation.
That doesn’t mean we don’t build new houses in Santa Cruz County. Of course we build new houses and we think the new housing should be concentrated in urban areas. That’s the way you protect land — the difference between an apartment building and single-family homes on quarter-acre lots is a lot of land. That’s our core notion. It’s about permanence, about forever. It’s about your grandkids enjoying the same view you enjoy.
Q: Is there anything unique about doing conservation work in Santa Cruz County specifically?
A: I’ll tell you what all of our partners from outside the county say: they view this as the most combative place they ever worked. No matter what they do, there’s opposition. They call us up and we say, ‘Yeah, we’re just used to it, it’s OK.’
We have a donor who lives up in the north part of the county who made a very generous donation to our wildlife campaign and then said, ‘I would give more, but I’m holding back a little bit in case there’s a lawsuit.’ I said, ‘What, are you being sued?’ They said, ‘No, no, in case, I need to sue you!’
Our partners from outside, that’s inconceivable for them. But to me, that’s like, you know, we all live here.
Q: If there was anything you would change about the work of conservation, what would it be?
A: I think one of the things that is really noticeable is how much work it is to get anything done. How many procedures, how many processes, how many hearings, how many permits, how much public feedback. That’s why it takes 10 to 12 years to get something done. The wildlife crossing on (Highway) 17 — that’s basically been a 10-year project. The next one on Highway 101 will probably be a 10-year project, and that is fast! I mean look at the Rail Trail, how long from conception to first construction, and of course it’s still a long way to go.
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Q: What are some of the hikes and walks you’re hoping to do more of in retirement?
A: The pandemic has made me really appreciate the river in Santa Cruz. I walk along the levee all the time, especially a year ago when the pandemic really kicked in. It was spring, I wasn’t going anywhere, the beaches were closed, and I would just walk the levee.
Everything was greening up and the birds were singing their little hearts out and big puffy clouds were going by. I really fell in love with the riverwalk at that time.
Q: You moved here and started hiking the area in 1980, how much has the natural landscape in Santa Cruz changed since then?
A: It feels remarkably the same. By and large, when you crest (Highway) 17 and you get your first view over town, it’s still mostly trees. I’ll be curious how the experience of all those big new buildings that are going in changes that. The building on the riverwalk will run all the way from Soquel to Laurel. That’s a huge building.
But my guess is, yeah, that building will be big but...the river will be the river. The trees will be the trees, the oceans will be the ocean. I don’t see our landscape being submerged under pavement and buildings.