Staff Spotlight: Matt Freeman

After 12 years of service to the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, Assistant General Manager Matt Freeman has announced his retirement from the agency. Keep reading to learn how Matt's 30-year career in land conservation, open space planning and resource management is leaving a legacy for the benefit of future generations.  

Matt Freeman has always had a deep love and appreciation for animals. During his childhood, Matt cherished the summers spent with his grandparents on Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, surrounded by wildlife like black bears, moose, beavers, pileated woodpeckers and more. This contrasted to his home in Nashville, which was experiencing explosive growth and development, and where Matt remembers watching in dismay as the meadow where he learned to fly a kite was turned into condos. "In that meadow was a tree that always ate my kites, and in that tree was a huge nest, and when that tree fell, its loss struck a deep chord in me that still resonates." 

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Matt exploring Georgian Bay as a child

As a member of the ecology club in high school, Matt felt a deep sense of fulfillment when the Nature Conservancy safeguarded Nashville's Radnor Lake and the surrounding open space near his childhood home. "For college, I almost decided to pursue environmental journalism, but my heart skipped a beat when reading about the Environmental Studies program at U.C. Santa Cruz and its emphasis on conservation biology and policy. I knew then that I wanted to devote myself to the protection of nature and I moved sight unseen to Santa Cruz to start the journey." 

Matt received his bachelor's degree in environmental studies from U.C. Santa Cruz and a master's in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Oregon. Prior to joining the Open Space Authority, Matt put his education to work with esteemed organizations such as the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, The Nature Conservancy and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Beyond these professional commitments, Matt also served as a valuable member of the Santa Cruz County Fish and Wildlife Advisory Commission and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council.  

Matt working at ACE 1991
Matt working for Alaska Center for the Environment after college.

Matt joined the Open Space Authority in 2012, and in his early conversations with General Manager Andrea Mackenzie, he recalls her asking questions like, “I don’t know how we do it, but is there a way to link climate protection with land use and agricultural conservation?” Matt adds, “I didn’t know either, but I was inspired to figure it out together! Andrea challenged me to come to the Open Space Authority and develop a strategic conservation plan: where to invest the agency’s precious resources that would make the biggest conservation impact for nature and our communities.”  

Matt (second from left) with Open Space Authority staff (2012)

Matt saw a lot of potential for the agency to engage in conservation planning on a significant scale. He also recognized that in the Bay Area, excessively high land prices require various agencies and organizations to work together and combine resources, especially for significant landscape level acquisitions. But beyond mere financial considerations, Matt says it's about building strong, collaborative relationships. "When conservation partners align, work toward a shared vision and respect and play to each other’s strengths, truly awesome synergies emerge.” 

Thus began his work of helping establish critical local, regional and statewide partnerships to protect crucial natural and working landscapes threatened by development, while simultaneously working to enhance the Open Space Authority's ability to care for a growing network of preserved lands. 

What emerged from Matt’s tireless efforts in 2014 was the groundbreaking Santa Clara Valley Greenprint, (the Greenprint) which marked a significant milestone in the Open Space Authority's conservation efforts. Even after a decade since its launch, the agency is still guided by this meticulously crafted, science-driven blueprint for conservation. The Greenprint outlined key strategies for protecting 10 of the most critical landscapes for conservation in the region to safeguard water, wildlife, working lands and outdoor recreation spaces that continue to play a vital role in enhancing the health and well-being of Santa Clara Valley residents today. Matt notes that when the report was first released, there was uncertainty about how well people would connect with the strong focus of nature-based solutions to climate change. Now, he feels that people are connecting the dots, and better understand how natural and working lands can help communities better adapt and reduce the impacts of extreme weather events.   

“Our work to protect and restore open space is inextricably linked to a suite of climate benefits,” says Matt. “Our farmland preservation work establishes effective greenbelts around cities, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon pollution from traffic and sprawl, while forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and restored wetlands and floodplains help buffer us from fire, drought and flooding that come with climate change.” 

Through his work on the Greenprint, Matt helped the Open Space Authority gain new perspectives on conservation that helped focus the agency’s conservation investments in multi-benefit landscapes, specifically places like Coyote Valley, Máyyan ‘Ooyákma – Coyote Ridge and the Upper Pajaro River. Matt notes that in addition to the multiple benefits these lands provide for people, they also provide important wildlife habitat and connectivity. “These landscapes are critical linkages for wildlife to safely move between the Santa Cruz and Diablo Range Mountains and they provide amazing opportunities for endangered species recovery,” Matt explains.  

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Matt celebrates the protection of Máyyan ‘Ooyákma – Coyote Ridge (2016)

In addition to the Greenprint, Matt was also a key driver to the creation of the Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan, (Ag Plan) which was adopted by Santa Clara County in 2018. The Ag Plan provides an innovative approach to agricultural preservation, aiming to help protect precious remaining farmlands as a climate-smart action. During his tenure at the Open Space Authority, Matt has played a crucial role in emphasizing the significance of preserving local farmlands instead of converting them into residential developments, which can help decrease greenhouse gas emissions, ensure food security and support a thriving local food economy that enhances our overall quality of life.    

Furthermore, under Matt’s leadership, the creation of the Coyote Valley Landscape Linkage report marked yet another major achievement for the Open Space Authority and its conservation partners. The report articulated a visionary approach to achieve wildlife connectivity and shifted the narrative of an area that for decades was regarded as the next development frontier. In doing so, it planted the seed for bold conservation action in collaboration with partners.

"Our team of staff and partners did the most amazing research to learn how to connect over one million acres of open space in the Santa Cruz and Diablo Range Mountains. Through extensive wildlife camera trapping and by tracking the movement of GPS-collared bobcats, we discovered where they were trying to cross Monterey Road and Highway 101-- major barriers-- and how they followed Fisher Creek to safely move through Coyote Valley."

Thus, the Landscape Linkage report opened the door for Matt and his team to begin strategizing for the preservation of Coyote Valley's future. His contributions to the Coyote Valley Conservation Areas Master Plan (CVCAMP) are another point of pride for the agency, where Open Space Authority staff, partners and the public are working to establish a truly unique preserve for people and nature in the heart of the South Bay.  

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Matt (far left) with Open Space Authority staff after the protection of Coyote Valley (2019)

Matt reflects, "With [Peninsula Open Space Trust], the City of San José, Santa Clara County, Green Foothills and other partners, we did the impossible and protected much of the north- and mid-Coyote Valley through strategic land acquisitions and policy protections. Of course, this work is far from over, but through the power of vision and strategic partnerships, we turned the tide toward a conservation future. Coyote Valley will be a symbol that as we restore connections for wildlife, we’re restoring our own connections to the Earth. What a gift for our kids.” 

While Matt finds joy in supporting large scale land protection efforts, he also reflects that some of his most meaningful projects were on a much smaller scale. “I got to know individuals and families who were motivated to see their properties—their homes—protected in perpetuity and, in some cases, who were willing to donate land or provide bargain sale prices rather than see the property ever at risk of being developed. I feel so very honored to have helped support their conservation legacy to benefit future generations with the gift of open space." 

Matt celebrates the public opening of Máyyan ‘Ooyákma – Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve (2023)

As for the future of the Open Space Authority, Matt is eager to see the agency continue to grow and evolve. "I’m inspired to see the agency grow its natural resource management and agricultural land protection capacity, and I’m excited to see what kinds of opportunities will emerge to connect local Tribes to their ancestral lands and to employ traditional ecological knowledge to recover landscapes’ resilience to 21st century problems like fires, droughts and floods that come with climate change.” 

Matt notes that the urgent global challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change demand decisive action, and he remains optimistic that the Open Space Authority's constituents will continue to rally behind the agency’s vital mission.  

MOCR-MattAndrea-D-Mauk-2023-1-1Open Space Authority General Manager Andrea Mackenzie and Matt at the opening of Máyyan ‘Ooyákma – Coyote Ridge (2023)

Throughout his journey, Matt found inspiration in showcasing the value of a transparent, accountable and financially responsible government to the public. “I’m so proud of what the Authority has accomplished, even around financial leverage alone—by bringing in over $150 million in outside funding over the past ten years, three dollars in outside funding for each tax dollar we’ve spent from the Authority’s constituents.” 

As the Open Space Authority continues to secure new funding and increase its capacity, Matt is excited to see the agency continue to lead in regional conservation efforts with close partners like Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency, and Santa Clara County Parks, creating an interconnected network of protected parks, open space preserves and well managed working lands in the South Bay and beyond. “In doing so, the Authority can do its part to demonstrate leadership and conservation action to help protect 30 percent of California’s lands and waters by 2030... and then 50 percent by 2050.”  

Once he retires from the Open Space Authority in June 2024, Matt looks forward to continuing to connect to nature in a variety of ways, including hiking, backpacking, sea kayaking, and travel.  As he embarks on this new chapter, he is also eager to immerse himself in the world of local plants and birds and pursue passions like writing and photography.  

“In taking a creative pause at this point in my career, I aim to reflect on how I can best use my skills and experience to protect the natural world.  One of the things I’m excited about is researching new landscapes that deserve lasting protection and to catalyze conservation through storytelling—to honor those special places and the people who are working passionately to protect them.”  

Matt backpack-1

Thank you, Matt, for your many years of dedication to the open spaces, wildlife and people of the Santa Clara Valley. 

April 10, 2024
For media inquiries contact:

Charlotte Graham

Public Information Officer