Aspen Valley Land Trust director prepares to step down |

Aspen Valley Land Trust director prepares to step down

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Martha Cochran has been executive director of Aspen Valley Land Trust for nearly 13 years.
Kurt W. Fehlhauer/AVLT courtesy photo |


Aspen Valley Land Trust boosted its number of acres held in conservation from 6,500 to 40,000 over the last 12-plus years during Martha Cochran’s tenure, and she still has a half-year left before surrendering her post.

It’s hard — and not fair — to ask her about her favorite projects, she said. She supplied them anyway, listed below, in her own words:

•Snowmass area: These conserved lands have great habitat, public open spaces, big ranches and a historic mammoth find. The Harvey Ranch, Child family’s Capitol Creek Ranch, John Denver’s Windstar, the land around Ziegler Reservoir; from the Rim Trail to Highway 82 and from Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area to Snowmass Creek — these 7,500 acres of conserved lands represent our natural and cultural heritage.

•South of I-70: The backside of Thompson Divide west to the Mamm Mountains, in a series of wide valleys is ranching country. Twenty-five property owners have conserved more than 9,700 acres of irrigated lands, high county rangeland and habitat, miles of streamside and multiple archaeological sites with significant petroglyphs walls. This is the breadbasket of our region and will still be agricultural land generations from now.

•Town of Independence: The subject of AVLT’s first land exchange, Independence and the surrounding 148 acres were put up for sale in 2001 with the potential for residential development. Thanks to the Loughran family, who had owned the site since the 1920s, and others, AVLT bought the property and later turned it over to the U.S. Forest Service. Independence is on the National Register of Historic Places and an important reminder of our region’s mining history.

Martha Cochran is stepping down later this year as head of a nonprofit organization responsible for preventing development of thousands of acres in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.

Cochran has been the executive director of Aspen Valley Land Trust for nearly 13 years. She will leave the post at the end of the year.

“It’s time,” Cochran said, adding it’s best for both her and for the organization. It’s healthy for an organization not to be directed by the same person for too long, she said, and she is personally ready for new challenges. She said the decision to leave is hers alone.

“It’s been my dream job,” Cochran said. “It’s a funny business because when you do something, nothing happens.”

Land conservation means keeping the status quo. Aspen Valley Land Trust has played a big role in keeping parts of the Roaring Fork Valley undeveloped. It’s expanded with increasing frequency into the Colorado River Valley during Cochran’s tenure.

Aspen Valley Land Trust is the oldest land trust in Colorado and was among the first in the nation to receive accreditation. It was founded in 1967 as Park Trust to provide a way for Aspen residents to donate land for parks without going through the city government. Its name was formally changed to Aspen Valley Land Trust in the mid-1990s. Hal Clark and Chuck Vidal were its first two executive directors. They served part time. Reid Haughey was the first full-time executive director. He started widening the focus of the organization beyond the upper valley.

Cochran has broadened Aspen Valley Land Trust’s role even more. “I like land. I’m a farm girl at heart,” said the Missouri native. She has been particularly interested in working with multi-generational families to preserve ranches and farms.

Throughout its 48 years, Aspen Valley Land Trust has conserved 40,000 acres in the Roaring Fork watershed and Colorado River Valley. That includes 60 miles along rivers and streams and 30 miles of public trails. The land trust typically receives conservation easements from landowners. They give up development rights in return for tax credits.

During her tenure, Aspen Valley Land Trust increased the acres conserved about fivefold, from 6,500 to 40,000 (see related fact box above). She credited the staff and board members she has worked with the organization’s success.

Aspen Valley Land Trust board president Jim Cardamone said in a prepared statement, “She has done an outstanding job and we’re sorry that she’s leaving, but we have a very talented staff and this is a good time for transition.”

The organization will start a national search for an executive director later this month, Cochran said, with the goal of making the transition in 2015.

Cochran said her hope is to start a plant nursery to grow native and xeric plants.

“I’d like to work with homeowners to convert part of their bluegrass lawns to more sustainable and wildlife friendly plants that don’t require water, fertilizer or mowing.”

Aspen Valley Land Trust often works with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. It buys land, often with a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado. GoCo, as the state organization is known, requires a third party to be involved in holding conservation easements.

The organization has conserved about 10 percent of the irrigated lands in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Cochran. The agricultural lands remain in production of locally grown food. Cochran said land conservation isn’t just about preserving landscapes and views. It’s also about maintaining agricultural lands that have water tied to the land. In other parts of Colorado, water rights are being sold to developers and municipalities and agricultural land is being taken out of production.

“They’re selling water rights as fast as they can,” Cochran said.

It’s important to hold onto those lands because climate change and population growth will create higher demand, but there are no new sources of water.

“Fifty years from now, the water rights conserved through AVLT may well be even more important than the land that is conserved,” Cochran said.

The No. 1 failure during her tenure was not securing the Sander’s Ranch property, on the south side of Highway 82 across from Cattle Creek Road. It is critical habitat and provides a rural break in a fast developing Highway 82 corridor in Garfield County.

The annual amount of land conserved ebbed and flowed during Cochran’s time with Aspen Valley Land Trust. Conservation slowed during the recession. Landowners had a lot of questions about the future. Nevertheless, the organization has continued to conserve key parcels, including some in Divide Creek, home of some of western Garfield County’s biggest ranches.

“They valley would look very different without AVLT,” Cochran said.