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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Nonette Hanko, the environment's 'mum' Nonette Hanko, the environment's 'mum' (May 07, 2003)

by Hilary Hannon

Anyone who enjoys hiking local trails and considers outdoor access a major blessing can thank Nonette Hanko. As a founder and five-time elected president of the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District, she has been instrumental in preserving 48,000 acres of open space from San Carlos to Los Gatos.

Her efforts began in the early 1970s, when the attitude prevailed that "progress" --meaning development -- was unavoidable, an attitude Hanko refused to accept.

Responding to an editorial in the former Palo Alto Times, she postponed her eldest son's 18th-birthday celebration to organize a group that eventually created the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District. What seemed like "an impossible dream" at the time has since preserved a wide swath of open land in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, crisscrossed by 250 miles of trails enjoyed by hikers, bikers, and equestrians. Her son later commented that postponing his party was one of the best things she had ever done.

When the district was formed by voters in 1972, Hanko was elected to the board of directors and has been re-elected every four years since. She currently serves her fifth term as president of the board, chosen by fellow board members.

In the mid 1980s, Hanko was appointed to Santa Clara County's 2020 Task Force and became principal author of the organization's recommendation that the county Board of Supervisors create what has become the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority. The authority was the final link in a ring of agencies around the bay dedicated to acquiring land for the trails.

Hanko's perseverance in supporting land acquisition to accomplish the trails "greenbelt" also extends to her current interests: seeing the district expand to the coast and overseeing completion of two trails that would encircle San Francisco Bay, one in the baylands and the other along the ridge lines of the mountains that encircle the Bay.

Instrumental toward the first goal is the plan to extend MROSD to the Pacific Ocean in San Mateo County from the Santa Cruz County line to the southern boundary of Pacifica. A majority of coastside residents supported the annexation in an advisory vote in 2000. Now she is meeting with representatives of the coastside farming community.

"When we say we want to extend our boundaries to coast, it strikes fear in their hearts," she said. "Farming is their livelihood, and the prime agricultural soils can't be relocated. If annexation is successful, we intend by our presence to be a benefit to the farming community, and we will do what we can to help the local farmers stay and be able to work their lands for generations to come.

"In 1972, when the district was formed, residents along the Skyline Ridge were also skeptical as to our intentions. Now many of these same residents and landowners are among our strongest supporters."

Hanko was an early supporter of the district's volunteer program for everything from "docent" guides to trail maintenance and construction. Last year, 600 volunteers contributed 13,937 hours to the district. It all is part of a vision "for the purpose of acquainting people of all ages with the beauty, enjoyment and educational experience on our public lands -- OUR public lands," she said.

In recent years, her efforts have won important recognition. In 1994, she was one of seven people to receive the prestigious "Creators of the Legacy" award as part of the Palo Alto Centennial. In 1996, she was selected by the League of Conservation voters for their new Santa Clara County Environmental Hall of Farm.

In 1997, she received the "World of Outdoors" award from the Girl Scouts of Santa Clara County and in 1999, was named "one of the living visionaries of Bay Area open space" by the late author/photographer Galen Rowell.

Born in San Mateo, Hanko has been fascinated with music, especially piano, since the age of 3. Her talents were obvious, and by the time she graduated from Burlingame High School Hanko had a dozen private piano pupils. A veteran of many concerts and winner of several awards, she plays for her family these days and hopes someday to have more time to practice.

Hanko is proud of her four children and seven grandchildren who, she says, "live close to her heart." But she thinks of MROSD as a "fifth child" and is known affectionately to its staff as "mum."

"The district is in good hands," she said. "We have an excellent board, a competent general manager and a staff that is creative and far-sighted, so all the children are doing well!" Her husband, Bob, passed away in 2001. However, she feels he lives on in the center of her being, providing her with the strength to do what needs to be done.


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