But when one experiences the spaces along Skyline Ridge, the lower foothills, the baylands and the coastside one discovers how full they are, teeming with wildlife, trees, plants of all sizes and descriptions.
And now they teem with people: walkers, hikers, runners, cyclists, equestrians exploring hundreds of miles of trails that didn't exist just a few decades back.
But for soon-to-retire Audrey Rust, president and CEO of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (better known as POST), preserving open space lands in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties has a national, even international significance. She sees it as a philosophical statement, an example in how humans can live better in the world, reducing urban sprawl and enhancing life in adjacent communities. POST and government agencies with which it has partnered are cited internationally as leaders in preserving land in a way that keeps regions vibrant and livable.
She sees a strong connection between the Silicon Valley economy and surrounding open lands, from towering Mt. Umunhum south of Los Gatos to the Skyline Ridge stretching north into San Mateo County. The views and trails, like quality schools and availability of entrepreneurial financing, help attract high-level firms and their workforce, she believes.
Rust, a self-described "nature freak" and watercolorist who has hiked many of the hundreds of miles of trails now open to the public, has focused on open space preservation for two dozen years. In 1987 she was named director of POST, a nonprofit organization. That was 10 years after POST was formed under the leadership of its first board president, Ward Paine of Portola Valley, a venture capitalist who still serves on the board. Rust succeeded the late Robert Augsberger, a former Stanford vice president, as POST's president.
Rust will be succeeded by Executive Vice President Walter T. Moore, who has been with POST for 16 years.
POST is distinct from the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), a special governmental district with which it is often confused.
Rust, a Menlo Park resident and native of Connecticut, announced in late January that on July 1 she will retire as POST president but that she will still be around in an advisory capacity. It will give her more time to hike and paint in nature, and travel, as compared to sitting in her office taking phone calls and doing business, she said.
It will be a tailing off of a career that started as an English teacher in New England, veered into university fundraising at Yale, Vassar and Stanford universities, then as a Sierra Club fundraiser and membership steward from 1981 to 1987 -- a job about which she had mixed feelings.
"I used to call it the Sierra Meeting Club," she said, citing "endless meetings" and frustrating contentious debates within the board while fighting "endless battles, constant threats to the same things you won last year" in efforts to protect the environment.
At POST, the focus is as clear as the view on a windy spring day from atop Windy Hill, looking down on the Midpeninsula to the east or toward the Pacific Ocean on the west -- or any of dozens of lookout points once off limits, set off by barbed-wire fences.
As with the view from the ridgetop, the focus is on two directions: the local region and the world beyond.
POST's method is to negotiate donations or discounted sale of properties, raising funds privately to acquire the lands, then convey them to public entities, including the MROSD, where the idea to create an agency such as POST originated after Santa Clara County voters approved formation of the district in late 1972. Southern San Mateo County was annexed by petition in 1977.
But in addition to MROSD, POST has worked with counties, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and a number of other entities.
Rust proudly cites the acquisition and protection of about 64,000 acres of open space, a goodly chunk of which is part of MROSD's nearly 60,000 acres it has acquired. One cannot add the totals together -- they substantially overlap.
Rust credits the vision of Paine and others with POST's success.
Paine "set the tone for the whole thing: We're going to be nimble, take risks; we're going to bet the ranch" to acquire important properties, she said of POST's mandate.
Rust's personal reputation of tough determination has helped her achieve what skeptics doubted could be done. POST has tackled huge challenges.
Rust's first big challenge was to raise $2 million in six months to protect the 1,200-acre Cowell Ranch, south of Half Moon Bay, then threatened with development.
Yet that amount seems measly compared to later achievements.
Overall, POST has raised more than $300 million, increased its staff five-fold and helped add thousands of acres to open space lands.
In the late 1990s, POST raised $33.5 million that went to protecting more than 12,500 acres of land, including the 1,623-acre Bair Island off Redwood City, once threatened with a major development by Mobil Land Company and later by a Japanese firm.
Then came the big effort, a $200 million campaign called "Saving the Endangered Coast." It was launched in 2001 with two $50 million gifts from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. It was completed in December 2005.
It was the largest land-protection effort ever by any local land trust in the United States, Rust notes. Lands protected include the 3,681-acre Driscoll Ranch in La Honda and the 4,262-acre Rancho Corral de Tierra near Montara. Overall, the effort preserved more than 20,000 acres along the San Mateo County coast.
POST recently has been expanding the concept of continuing agricultural and timber-harvesting in select areas.
But its biggest challenge may lie ahead. That is awakening a new generation of wealthy individuals to the importance of philanthropic giving, both locally and worldwide.
David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Corporation, hoped to ignite wealthy business persons and others to give more, but ultimately believed that he had failed to do so, Rust said. The challenge POST and similar organizations now face is to stimulate the younger generation of the high-tech rich to see the link between their global electronic vision and the local environment in which their success is nurtured.
"This economic engine here is so completely integrated to the natural systems surrounding it," Rust says. Many firms "would not be here if we didn't have that beauty and accessibility around us," which their employees treasure and use.
"We have to keep that core alive."