After 24 years as executive director and president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, Audrey Rust will retire on June 30. During her tenure, she built the organization into one of the most respected and influential local land trusts in the nation while protecting over 53,000 acres of natural and agricultural landscapes in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
Q: How long have you lived in the Bay Area?
A: Since 1970.
Q: What first turned you on to nature in the Bay Area?
A: I’ve always loved being in nature since I grew up in Connecticut and had the good fortune to be close to woods where I could play. What struck me when I arrived here was how vast and accessible the natural areas are. Here we have hills, forests, beaches and trails all at our fingertips.
Q: What’s your favorite park, hike or place to go in the Bay Area to enjoy nature?
A: There’s no single place. The more places you experience here, the harder it is to have a favorite. We have the coast, redwoods, oak savannah–once you’re exposed to all that, it’s impossible to choose one place over another. The fact is, every time I go out on a property I end up saying, “Oooh, this one’s my favorite!”
Q: How did you first become involved with POST?
A: I was approached about becoming executive director when the organization was first formed, in 1977. At the time, I didn’t think I was the right candidate and suggested that Bob Augsburger (1926-2009), one of POST’s co-founders and Stanford’s Vice President for Finance, be the first executive director, which is what happened. Soon after, I got involved with POST in a volunteer capacity, working on a planning committee for Skyline Open Space Preserve. A few years later, Bob called me and said he was ready to retire and was looking for a successor. He said, “Audrey, what goes around, comes around. It’s your turn now,” so in 1987 I became POST’s executive director and president.
Q: How has POST’s mission evolved during your 24 years there.
A: Our mission has always been to focus on permanently protecting local open space, specifically here on the Peninsula. When I first came to work at POST, the goal was to expand the organization’s financial capacity not just to seize opportunities on the land that fit into our strategic priorities, but also to be able to afford to hold onto those lands as long as it takes to find suitable permanent owners–usually a public agency. I’m pleased to say that today we can do that. We save land and then typically transfer it to parks and open space agencies, farmers, private conservation owners–whatever is the long-term ownership and management that best serves the conservation needs of a given property.
Q: What’s the most pressing issue POST is confronting now?
A: The most pressing issue is the same one every nonprofit is facing: It’s a difficult time to finance our work. Acquiring conservation land, especially in the Bay Area, is extremely capital-intensive, and there’s little or no public money available now to leverage the private donations we get and we don’t see the situation improving. And yet we must do this conservation work now, while opportunities on the land exist. Future generations won’t be able to do it, because by then key properties will be gone– built up, fenced off, and their natural features compromised or destroyed. We won’t get another chance. Conservation can’t wait.
Q: So is there a possible solution?
A: We need to create a new public financing mechanism that will answer the needs of public parks agencies and open space districts to complete the vision for protected land in our area and enable them to permanently operate and manage these special places. We need to support these lands as functional, healthy natural systems that provide rich benefits for all of us: clean air and clean water, unique biodiversity, world-class outdoor recreation, sources of healthy food close to home.
Q: What have you liked most about the work you have done at POST?
A: I like to get things done, and when you work on land conservation, you can really see what you’re accomplishing. The results are tangible and permanent. You can’t do it alone, of course. It takes a community to get this work done, and that’s satisfying, too.
Q: Who or what in the Bay Area inspires you these days?
A: What inspires me is the land itself. You walk out onto Skyline Ridge, look out over hill after hill cascading down to the sea, then turn around to see the cities of the Bay Area behind you. You have rural and urban settings right next to each other, side by side. It makes me feel so lucky to call this place home. How can you walk past a giant valley oak, through an ancient redwood forest, across a meadow bursting with wildflowers or over a windswept bluff top, and not know this is the best thing you could possibly do with your life?
Editor’s Note: After we had interviewed Audrey, and shortly before going to press, we received the fantastic news that the Trust’s Rancho Corral de Tierra, a spectacular 4,000 acre property along the San Mateo coast purchased by POST in 2001, will become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Check out our video of a special hike there last year, and then learn more at POST’s website.