When your land trust agrees to protect land, either by owning it or by holding a conservation easement, you promise to take care of that land over the long term. It’s easy to get excited about new transactions, but it’s only by keeping your promises — through consistent, capable stewardship — that you truly protect the land.
Funding for Stewardship
Before making any promises, you need to know what it will cost to keep them and how you’re going to cover those costs. Land trusts use various formulas to determine the likely costs of stewardship for each project. If at all possible, you want to have funds in hand to cover your future stewardship costs before you close a deal. Then, you can say with confidence that you’ll be able to protect the land. Plus, it’s a lot easier to raise money for a new project than to cover a shortfall in your stewardship fund down the road!
Often, land trusts often ask landowners to make a stewardship contribution when they donate an easement. But the costs of stewardship sometimes exceed the amount a landowner can reasonably contribute — so you may need to raise funds from other sources, as well.
Land trusts usually invest stewardship contributions in a dedicated fund. The best-case scenario is to set aside enough money that you can pay your stewardship costs from the interest, while allowing the principal to grow enough to keep up with inflation. Some land trusts use two dedicated funds for stewardship — one for routine activities and another for legal defense. Another way to make sure you’re financially ready to defend your easements is to purchase insurance through Terrafirma.
Fee Land Stewardship
Stewardship of land-trust owned properties begins with thoughtful planning — a process that starts before you acquire the land. Questions to answer include: How does this land fit into our overall conservation strategy? What natural and cultural resources are present? What will we do to protect or enhance those resources? What public benefit will this land provide? What activities can take place here? What will it cost to achieve our goals? Where will that money come from? This process culminates in a land management plan to guide your stewardship activities. As you move forward, it’s essential to monitor your properties on a regular basis so you can evaluate how well you’re achieving your goals and adapt your management accordingly. Monitoring also allows you to identify any potential problems, such as trespass or overuse, and take timely action to correct them.
Conservation Easement Stewardship
When you hold a conservation easement, the goal of stewardship is to make sure that the terms of the easement are carried out. Of course, it’s far better to avoid a violation than to have to resolve one, which makes maintaining positive relationships and clear communication with landowners a core stewardship activity. An important first step is to make sure that landowners are aware of the terms of the easement, especially as the land changes hands. Ideally, the land trust serves as a resource for landowners, inspiring them to go above and beyond in their personal stewardship of the land and to act as ambassadors for conservation. You’re also responsible for keeping track of what happens on the land and ensuring that all activities are consistent with the easement. As a starting point, you need thorough baseline documentation, to establish the condition of the land when the easement was granted. Then, you need to monitor the property at least once a year, documenting changes and identifying any issues or concerns. When you do encounter a violation, it’s important to have a policy in place to guide your steps. If possible, partner with the landowner on a voluntary resolution, but be prepared to take legal action when necessary.