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Land Trusts Protecting Paradise?

Jan 22, 2008

“Pave paradise, put up a parking lot” is what comes to mind when I think of the changes popping up each day in the land I see. I make use of all these changes too, and I built a house 28 years ago in what was once woods. So I’m not whining about what others are doing since I’m part of it all, but just thinking about how as a community, a state filled with about 6 million people, we might have a chance to also keep a little paradise here as we grow.

“Land trusts,” said Peggy Horner, Missouri Conservation Department wildlife programs supervisor, as she nearly leaped from her chair. I noticed that she’d set up a meeting of various land trust groups a month ago and was curious about it. If you want to see her get excited, just say those two words. It turns out that the reason for her exuberance is that protecting healthy habitats is a good way, a very effective way, to keep nature from falling apart, to keep species from becoming endangered in the first place. It’s easy to understand why someone whose job was to help get species off the endangered list would want to be part of something that really works rather than trying to fix things after they’re broken.

So back to the land trusts. There are about 12 such organizations working in Missouri now. About 20,000 acres are protected by them, either because they own them or hold easements for them. The groups attending the meeting had a variety of focuses: some like The Nature Conservancy are national, others like the Ozark Regional Land Trust cover a few states, and others like Greenbelt Land Trust focus on one or a few counties.

A land trust typically is a nonprofit organization that focuses on land conservation and protection. The trusts do it through land transactions (accepting donations, buying land, holding conservation easements, etc.). They help private landowners (using tax benefits) to conserve land for the future in support of public benefits like scenery, wildlife, natural resources or agriculture.

Peggy said that in the past five years, the number of acres put into land trusts across the nation doubled to 37 million acres. Most of that land is in the west and east coasts and in the western mountains. Only 4 percent of those 37 million acres is in the Midwest. I guess that’s not too surprising since we’ve had less intense population concentration here. But as Missouri grows, so likely will the value of land trusts as a way to help landowners leave their land for future Missourians.

The meeting last month gave a chance for members of these land trusts to get together and start sharing ideas about how they can best work together. Peggy mentioned a national umbrella organization, the Land Trust Alliance, that works to encourage these independent groups to adopt standards. I asked her about the Trust for Public Land that I had read about recently related to their work in linking children and nature by helping communities create parks. She said they don’t permanently hold land like the land trusts but are more focused on helping others acquire the lands… So there are lots of ways to slice and dice it. But the key for me is knowing that there are groups that can help the rest of us work together for a common good, whether it’s saving rich agricultural soil, protecting unique wildlife habitats or leaving a beautiful view.

And what role does the Missouri Department of Conservation play in all this? To help land trusts work together in our state, to help them access federal and state grant programs and to support efforts to strengthen conservation easement laws so private landowners can be assured they’re contributing to some good for the future.

So after hearing about all this, I’m curious about what you think. How do we keep a balance of a little “paradise” (a healthy place for wild plants and animals) with people? I think the land trusts could be an interesting tool for some.

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