Stories from the 2015 National Land Trust Census
The Land Trust Alliance conducts the National Land Trust Census every five years to measure the important conservation work of state, local and national land trusts in the United States. Though much has changed in the 35 years since the first census, the importance of protecting the special places we love is stronger than ever.
The Census is both a benchmark and a snapshot of the land trust movement and its collective impact on people and communities across the country. Here are just a few of the hundreds of stories that land trusts told us through the survey, demonstrating the deep roots of the land conservation community.
Balancing Our Priorities
Nebraska Land Trust, accredited
It was snowing hard as Dave Sands, the Nebraska Land Trust’s executive director, drove up Highway 385 toward Chadron in the Pine Ridge region of northwest Nebraska. Visibility in th evening darkness was poor, which seemed like a good metaphor for the trip. Dave was scheduled to give a presentation on conservation easements the next morning and he was unsure of the road ahead. Other organizations had already failed to make inroads in this scenic corner of the state. Given the locals’ skepticism of land trusts, he had no idea whether anyone would show up to hear or trust what a conservation organization from eastern Nebraska had to say.
Optimism for a successful meeting took another hit the next morning, which dawned with a foot of snow. Nevertheless, Dave picked up two dozen donuts, hoping there would be people to eat them. By the end of the meeting, the donuts were gone. About 20 landowners had braved the slick roads to learn about permanently protecting their land. They were concerned about changing land use in the Pine Ridge and with changing land ownership, as local ranch families were being replaced by absentee owners. As the skies began to clear outside, it became clear in the meeting room that people cared deeply about the future of their landscape. They wanted to preserve its beauty, ranching, history and wildlife.
Despite the winter weather, Dave planted seeds that morning — seeds of interest that led to the formation of the Nebraska Land Trust’s Pine Ridge Advisory Committee. With ranchers from three counties, community leaders and local conservation professionals, the land trust worked with this 22-member group to establish priorities for land conservation in the Pine Ridge. Rather than telling people what the land trust wanted to protect, the committee asked, “What makes this region special? What would you like to preserve for your grandchildren? What are your priorities for protection?” This approach has now led to site visits to assess eight properties covering 13,400 acres of spectacular Pine Ridge land, using the conservation criteria developed by the local advisory committee.
Dave notes that the Nebraska Land Trust received a community conservation grant from the Land Trust Alliance to help with this work.
Bringing People to the Land
Bear Yuba Land Trust (CA), accredited
Henry, 14, a freshman at Nevada Union High School, sat in the cool shade on the grass with a group of other high school students from the boys and girls basketball teams and Special Education Department. He and a classmate examined the papery scales of a rattlesnake skin. “They shed,” said Henry.
For many parents the idea of going outdoors to explore nature with their children can be daunting. Concerns about safety and accessibility often result in kids spending lots of time in indoor environments far from the natural world.
Yet that warm April day at Burton Homestead, 41 curious teens were hiking hand-in-hand or being pushed in wheelchairs outside in the open air. They were learning, exploring and all smiles. For the third consecutive year, Bear Yuba Land Trust’s Encounter Nature Program has partnered with the high school and local Rotary Club to bring students to one of its preserves.
Earth Skills Educator Rick Berry from Four Elements Earth Education passed around preserved fox pelts, an assortment of skulls and turtle shells. Lawrence Laughing from the Tsi Akim Maidu tribe told stories around a campfire inside the bark house, an active cultural center on a 3-acre section of the property called “Pata Panaka.” Farmers from Sierra Harvest shared freshly pulled beets and carrots and talked about the inhabitants of healthy soil. “I learned that worms have five hearts,” said Izaiah, 15.
Planting Seeds in Cities
New Haven Land Trust (CT)
Around her block in the Hill neighborhood, the kids know her as “Miss Leslie.” Otherwise, she’s Leslie Radcliffe, an outgoing woman who has made the Truman Street Community Garden her mission. To the kids, she’s the one who calls to them to work in the garden, hands out tools and puts out snacks. But she’s quick to point out that it’s not her garden. “People knock on the door to ask if they can use the garden, and I say, ‘You can use your garden. It’s not Miss Leslie’s garden; it’s yours.’”
Leslie got into gardening when she bought her house in 2009. A friend suggested she plant some day lilies. A border garden was next; then still more flowers — she was hooked. Later, when health issues convinced her to eat more vegetables, she started growing her own to save money. “It’s really not as hard as one might think,” she said. The street still had its rough patches, including some drug houses. She decided the best way to stay safe was to meet all the neighbors. But passing hellos weren’t enough. A veteran of block watches and leadership workshops, Leslie is a doer. She organized a street cleanup.
That led to turning an empty lot into a neighborhood green space. Then she talked to the New Haven Land Trust and started the community garden. Neighbors caught on. One man, unprompted, brought 100 collard seedlings, which became the first harvest.
Leslie says kids become calmer in the garden, adults become friendlier, and even people watching from their houses seem to approve. Everyone just needed to see the seeds of a better neighborhood.
Committing to Forever
Legacy Land Conservancy (MI), accredited
Nestled at the edge of the village of Stockbridge, Michigan, is a peaceful 30-acre natural area where you can see deer, wild turkeys and, if you are lucky, a great horned owl. Donated to Legacy Land Conservancy by the Laird family in 1999, the forested Beckwith Preserve has over 800 feet of frontage on Portage Creek, one of the cleanest tributaries to the Huron River. When out on the preserve, you may also encounter local runners and the high school cross-country team out for practice, as this trail is part of the Stockbridge Lakelands Trail State Park and part of the Stockbridge Community Pathways.
Legacy Land Conservancy, founded in 1971, takes its commitment to donors like the Lairds seriously. To demonstrate its commitment, it was an early accreditation leader — applying in the pilot round in 2007. At that time Legacy had approximately $20,000 for the stewardship and defense of the 32 easements and preserves it held. As part of the accreditation process, it needed to create a plan to increase its stewardship and defense funds. “We promise our landowners ‘forever.’ Our donors understand this and when we reached out with our campaign to build our stewardship and defense funds, they responded,” said Doug Koop, the conservancy’s executive director. When Legacy applied for renewal, it had a stewardship and defense fund of over $650,000 for its nearly 80 properties. That fund has grown to more than $800,000 today.
Meeting the Highest Standards
Land Trust for Louisiana, accredited
The Lake Ponchartrain-Maurepas Swamp was at one time the world’s largest cypress swamp. All of this changed from 1876 to 1956 when many of the thousand-year-old trees were felled for timber. It changed again when, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Land Trust for Louisiana purchased 700 acres of cypress and tupelo swamp to create the West Ponchartrain-Maurepas Swamp Important Bird Area. The purchase prevented further development along the primary access to the swamp. The land trust also partnered with Audubon to enhance the area’s ecological value as habitat for species such as roseate spoonbills and blue herons.
Becoming both accredited and state-certified in 2015 has greatly strengthened the land trust’s ability to permanently protect this pristine wilderness. While achieving accreditation was a monumental effort, the public now knows that the Land Trust for Louisiana operates according to the highest standards and that the resources it protects will be secure for future generations.
President and CEO Dr. Jay Addison shared, “We know how precious our natural resources are to the people of Louisiana and we make it a priority to protect our lakes, streams, rivers and bayous so that our children and their grandchildren will have safe clean water to live by and enjoy.”
Find the summary report on the National Land Trust Census, as well as data by state, on our website. Katie Chang is educational services manager for the Land Trust Alliance.