Making Spaces Between Places


The land speaks volumes if your heart can hear it. For Martha Cochran, director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, the message is loud and clear: Protect. Preserve. Conserve.

The fifth generation to grow up on a Missouri homestead, Cochran’s roots reach back to a family farm – a place that was anchored to the soil, to growing things and to integrated life systems that produce food.

For Cochran, saving a ranch from development allows agriculture to maintain its focus within the traditional culture of the Roaring Fork Valley region. It not only preserves open views and a traditional American heritage, but it also provides homes and forage for the wildlife that has equal claim on our landscape and needs open land to exist, to breed, feed and thrive.

Since 1967, the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) has helped private landowners preserve over 38,000 acres of family ranches, scenic view sheds, riparian and wildlife habitat and recreational areas. Colorado’s oldest land trust, AVLT is a trusted, community-based non-profit organization that serves the greater Roaring Fork Valley, including the Frying Pan and Crystal River valleys, and the Colorado River Valley west of Glenwood Springs.

Lands are conserved for agriculture, wildlife habitat, scenic views and recreation. Much of the conserved land borders public lands, expanding the range for wildlife. Many properties include miles of public trails and access to federal land.

Cochran points out that 70 to 80 percent of wildlife depends on riparian areas – meaning river and stream channels – at some point in their life cycle. That, plus water quality, is why conserving land along streams and rivers is important.

“What we do at AVLT ties the water to the land, and water is perhaps more important,” observes Cochran. “Water is about land, and land is about water. AVLT has protected the land along more than 60 miles of streams and rivers, as well as the water rights used on the land.”

Midwestern Farm Girl

“I grew up in a house and a barn built by my great-grandfather,” says Cochran. “He was Irish and settled in Missouri where there were a lot of Irish immigrants. The lush, hilly Missouri landscape reminded them of home.”

“When I was a kid, there was still a pump at the kitchen sink. I learned an existence that was simplified, economical and frugal. We had cattle, hogs, sheep and chickens, and we grew corn and hay. This was an impoverished area,” she recalls.

“In the ‘80s, my father quit farming because he realized that chemicals and plowing were depleting the soil. He switched to pasture land to protect bird and deer habitat and raise cattle. His farm was greener that all the others in the area because he farmed organically. He was one of the first tree huggers, and he knew every tree on the farm. That’s where I got attached to the land.”

From Journalist to Conservationist

Cochran studied journalism at the University of Missouri, where she met Glenwood Springs journalist Dale Strode, who hired her at the Glenwood Post in 1974. She quickly put down roots, buying a home and raising a family.

“I have lived in Glenwood for over 40 years – on the same street for 39 years,” she says. “We don’t move around much.”

Cochran became executive director of AVLT after leaving the Post Independent in 2002. It was a role that tapped her own deep roots.

“I always favor the land because, if we screw that up, we don’t have choices in the future,” says Cochran. “You can’t save everything, but you save what has long-term benefit because you can’t get a pasture back once it’s developed. You don’t have clean air and clean water without open land, and we need spaces between places.”

Birth of Aspen Valley Land Trust

In 1967, Fritz and Fabi Benedict of Aspen donated land along the Roaring Fork River to a new non-profit environmental organization called the Park Trust. Freddie Fisher Park was the first donation, and it launched Park Trust on its mission to conserve land. The organization later expanded its mission and changed its name to Aspen Valley Land Trust.

AVLT doesn’t technically buy the land, but works to place the land into conservation easements. Easements translate into tax advantages for landowners who preserve the land from development while retaining private ownership.

“We’re a professional office and this is a serious business,” comments Cochran. “We’re talking up to $100 million a year sometimes in development rights that are extinguished. AVLT is committed, and the landowners are committed to the long term.”

Cochran acknowledges that it’s hard for some people to understand how easements that have no public access still count as a public amenity.

“Conserved land has innate value even if I don’t get to walk around on it. It provides food and wildlife habitat, cleans the air and water. People are really lucky to live here with our public lands and with land owners who are willing to make decisions to do what’s right with their land.”

As generations pass, properties often turn over to heirs, requiring management flexibility and vigilance.

“We’re responsible in perpetuity for the land – and that’s a long time,” says Cochran. “The biggest challenge is maintenance and enforcement of easements. Monitoring and enforcing are looming challenges in a changing world.”

“Our job is to explore the neighborhood,” wrote Cochran in Our Place, the first of two books she authored commemorating AVLT’s conservation landowners. “Those who make the choice to conserve land do so because they care about the future and they care about the land. For them, the two are inseparable.”