Bay Nature magazineSpring 2022

Bay Nature Local Heroes

Meet Nonette Hanko, Bay Nature’s 2022 Conservation Action Hero

March 24, 2022
Nonette Hanko. (Illustration by Gwen Huerta)

Each year the Bay Nature Institute board and staff select remarkable individuals to receive a Local Hero Award in recognition of outstanding work on behalf of the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area. The 2022 recipients will be celebrated during the 12th annual Bay Nature Local Hero Awards event from 2 to 5 p.m. at the David Brower Center in Berkeley on March 27. Please join the festivities in person or virtually! 

Nonette Hanko has always enjoyed spending time outdoors. When she was growing up in San Mateo County in the 1930s, her mother gave her small plots in the backyard garden, where she grew flowers. An accomplished piano player, born with perfect pitch, she would spend hours indoors playing the piano, then unwind outside in nearby open spaces. 

In the early 1950s, Hanko and her husband Bob moved to Palo Alto, where she taught piano and spent her free time exploring the hills and open spaces of the Peninsula. Some of those places were threatened by development, spurring her to organize and hold a small meeting with friends in her living room. They talked about how to persuade the Palo Alto City Council to stop development in an open space near the Stanford campus, Coyote Hill. She made an excellent blueberry coffee cake, which her friends and colleagues would jokingly say was the reason people came back for a second meeting. 

Now 90, Hanko is recounting this story by Zoom from the same living room. In 1972, that small group of friends helped organize and lead a ballot initiative to create the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Hanko’s four children went door-to-door to urge people to vote yes. After the measure passed, Hanko won election to the district’s Board of Directors, on which she served for the next 46 years, including six terms as president of the board. In her time there, Midpen acquired 63,000 acres in 26 different public open space preserves. One trail, in Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, is now named the Nonette Hanko San Andreas Fault Trail. “There’s always a question of what would have happened to these lands if we hadn’t saved them?” Hanko says.

Hanko retired in 2018. In the pandemic, her grandchildren have taken her to walk the trails in the open spaces she helped protect, and to see people finding refuge in the parks. “It was always my plan, anyway, to see that people would have a right to use the land,” Hanko says. “That they would be able to hike on it. They wouldn’t be building on it, but they would be able to use the land by walking on it.”

About the Author

Eric Simons is a former digital editor at Bay Nature. He is author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans and Darwin Slept Here, and is coauthor, with Tessa Hill, of At Every Depth: Our Growing Knowledge of the Changing Oceans.