Partners in Trust—Land&People

"Everywhere across America we're losing our rural environment," says Larry Power, a former public relations executive with a booming voice. Power lives with his Tibetan terrier, Bandit, in a house overlooking a pond, woods, and a meadow in the town of Sharon in northwestern Connecticut. As president of the Sharon Land Trust, he has been preoccupied with the loss of his own rural environment in recent years—the loss of what he calls his region's "unique combination of wild open spaces and quintessential New England scenery."

Northwestern Connecticut's beauty is on a humble scale: the forested foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, threaded by the Housatonic River and its tributaries, small farms, ponds, low ledges, clapboard houses, and downtowns marked by white Colonial churches. Three hundred years ago, settlers from Europe cleared its forests to grow crops, raise animals, and mine iron. With the gradual decline of these enterprises, the forests have returned while the region has remained pastoral and sparsely populated. Tourism and service industries form the backbone of the economy. Telecommuters and weekend residents from New York are common and have included such celebrities as Henry Kissinger, Meryl Streep, Placido Domingo, and Skitch Henderson.

In towns like Sharon and nearby Kent, which borders Sharon on the south, community land trusts formed in the 1980s to preserve the rural landscapes people love. The Sharon and Kent Land Trusts were originally established to accept small gifts of land or easements, but their work has accelerated recently as land values have risen and development pressure has grown. Together the two groups have protected more than 3,000 acres, most of this in the last five years.

But despite their accumulating experience, the two land trusts found themselves at a loss when, in 2001, residents raised the alarm about a plan to develop land on Skiff Mountain, straddling the towns' border. While development can benefit a community if sited in the right place, to the land trusts and local conservationists this clearly seemed like the wrong place: 200 acres in the midst of a potential 5,800-acre open space corridor where the Appalachian Trail meanders through the state.

Much of this open space was already protected by the National Park Service, the land trusts, and Macedonia Brook State Park. The land scheduled for development includes meadows, a young hardwood forest, and a rare black spruce bog. It provides important habitat for bears, bobcats, golden-winged warblers, blue-winged warblers, and wood thrushes, and it is crossed by many cross-country skiing and hiking trails.

Skiff Mountain neighbors, local conservationists, and the land trusts organized themselves as the Friends of Skiff Mountain, and for two years they faithfully attended more than 60 public hearings, trying to hold off the development. What upset many of them was that the land was owned by the private Kent School, the town of Kent's largest employer, and was under contract for sale to a development group of Kent School alumni. The battle over development would soon assume all the bitterness and sense of betrayal of a family fight.

"This was a classic David-and-Goliath battle," says resident Dennis De Paul, whose wife's family has lived on Skiff Mountain for generations. De Paul and local lawyer Theresa D'Alton were the first residents to appeal to the Kent town commissioners to stop the plan. For its part, the school—which had been trying to sell the land for many years—believed it had a contract with the development group, says Arthur Collins, Sr., chairman of the Real Estate Committee for the Kent School Board of Trustees. And so a stalemate developed, with the school beginning to look for options that would resurrect its relationship with the townfolk and the developers pushing the town to approve the project. "It was chaos for a while," Collins says. "A lot of people weren't talking to a lot of other people around this town."

The Kent Land Trust's Harmon Smith recalls a meeting in which conservation-minded residents got together to raise money for legal funds and consider next steps. "My opinion was that the project was too complicated, too large, and the issues were too difficult for local land trusts to deal with successfully," Smith says. "I thought we needed the expertise and advice of an organization like the Trust for Public Land."

Partnership Drives Projects

Local land trusts across the nation frequently call in the Trust for Public Land when trying to accomplish a difficult project. Land trusts are community groups organized to protect open space by holding land or easements, which restrict development. Some employ a part-time director or a small staff. Many more are all-volunteer groups, meeting in their spare time in members' homes. This is the case with the Sharon and Kent Land Trusts.

The Trust for Public Land, despite its name, is not a land trust at all but rather a national nonprofit that helps agencies, communities, and local land trusts plan, raise funds for, and complete conservation projects.

But TPL has long recognized the importance of local land trusts as partners. In the 1970s, TPL helped found or train several hundred such groups. As the number grew and it became clear that they needed their own support organization, TPL helped found the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), a national umbrella group that today provides training, publications, and lobbying services for the nation's approximately 1,300 local land trusts.

Current LTA president Rand Wentworth, previously director of TPL-Georgia, has had ample opportunity to see how local land trusts and TPL work together to conserve land. "What land trusts bring to the table is a keen knowledge about local lands that are currently threatened," Wentworth says. "They know the politics; they know the people. But they may not have the professional experience to negotiate with a multinational paper company or a sophisticated real estate developer. This is especially true if the land trust has a small staff or is made up entirely of volunteers. The members just don't have the time to do the work."

TPL can come into a community and inject energy into a project that may be stalled, or step in as a neutral party in negotiations that have become polarized. In addition, TPL may be aware of funding from state, federal, or other sources that could help protect a particular parcel—or may be able to help a community raise funds for a project. As a national organization, TPL also works with LTA and other organizations to create an infrastructure that assists local land trusts in their work. TPL works actively to promote conservation funding at the local, state, and national levels. TPL publications highlight conservation strategies that are often of interest to local land trusts. And TPL often has the knowledge to solve a local problem, because it knows about solutions that have worked elsewhere.

In Connecticut, partnering with community land trusts has become a mainstay of TPL's work, says Alicia Betty, a TPL project manager who works out of TPL-Connecticut's New Haven office. In part this is because the state has so many land trusts: more than 100, second only to Massachusetts. Also, with public conservation funds on the decline in Connecticut, land trusts and private donations are becoming more and more important to conservation. Finally, notes Betty, "the development pressure is just phenomenal in this state. Land trusts are finding that they have to be proactive to protect priority properties."

In only the last few years, TPL and local land trusts have protected significant properties across Connecticut. Typically, TPL will negotiate a transaction and then work with local land trusts to raise private and government funds to protect the property.

  • In Southbury, TPL and Southbury Land Trust helped protect 97-acre Phillips Farm, whose hiking trails and views figure heavily in books by Gladys Taber, a well-known mid-twentieth-century writer who lived nearby.
  • In New Milford, TPL worked with Weantinoge Heritage, a local land trust, to raise more than a quarter of the $823,000 required to conserve a much-loved farm.
  • In Fairfield County, TPL worked with the Darien Land Trust to protect a nine-acre field near
  • the former home of Steven Mather, founder of the National Park Service.
  • In Goshen, in the northwest hills not far from Kent and Sharon, TPL purchased 16.5 acres along the Bantam River, while the Goshen Land Trust raised part of the money needed to add this land to a 156-acre preserve.
  • In Greenwich and Stamford, TPL worked with the Stamford and Greenwich Land Trusts to protect the 94-acre Treetops estate on the Mianus River.

Saving Skiff Mountain

Despite successful partnerships elsewhere in Connecticut, TPL State Director Tim Northrop didn't hold out much hope when the Sharon and Kent Land Trusts first came to him about helping to protect Skiff Mountain. For one thing, he believed it unlikely that Kent School's contract with the development group could be changed. "I told them we probably had a 5 or 10 percent chance of being successful, but that it was worth giving it a shot," Northrop says.

The ensuing effort took long enough that Northrop left TPL on sabbatical to attend the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, then returned to work on the project with a newly minted master's degree in hand. In the interim, Badge Blackett, a TPL project manager from Boston, drove down to Kent a half-dozen times to strategize with the land trusts and negotiate with Kent School and the development group.

When Blackett finally got to sit down with the Kent School, the project suddenly doubled in size and complexity as the school asked TPL to acquire an additional 250 acres—a contingency for its breaking off negotiations with the development group. The final, painfully negotiated transaction reimbursed Kent School for the value of its land and reimbursed the developers for their expenses, while leaving them with a 17-acre lot on which to build a single home.

Even the school and the developer credit Blackett with structuring the deal that led to the land's protection. "TPL was a catalyst in this whole thing," says Kent School trustee Arthur Collins. "Everyone understood what they stood for—that the land would be protected. Badge Blackett did an incredible job of putting this thing together, and it wouldn't have happened without him."

In the meantime, the land trusts, with their local connections, pitched in to help raise nearly $1.5 million in private donations to help fund the acquisition. The Kent and Sharon Land Trusts will end up owning the land and protecting it for community benefit.

For its part, the state helped propel the transaction forward, as it has with similar transactions, by granting $1.25 million for the protection effort from the Connect-icut Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program. The grants were among the highest in the program's history, says Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner David K. Leff, because the two parcels adjoined other conservation lands. "This kind of project shows a lot of vision in trying to quilt together a contiguous band of open space," Leff says. "This has a great deal of value for recreation and for wildlife, and requires long-term commitment to eventually piece the entire thing together."

Saving Skiff Mountain seemed impossible at the start, and those who fought for it look back in glad amazement. They believe that the housing development would be under construction now if not for all the partners who joined hands in the project.

Another important outcome is that those partnerships continue, with residents even more energized than before to conserve land. Even now, TPL's Tim Northrop is working with residents to preserve an additional 1,000 acres on Skiff Mountain.

"It's great to be able to come in and help a community protect a landscape that is important to them," Northrop says. "And it's wonderful to see that work promote a conservation ethic that will survive after we are gone."

Christine Woodside is a Connecticut writer and editor specializing in the environment and American civilization. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Appalachia, Preservation Online, Woman's Day, and other publications. In 1987 she hiked the entire Appalachian Trail.

Information from the Land Trust Alliance for and about land trusts

Gallatin Valley Land Trust

Founded in 1990, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust is dedicated to preserving open space, agricultural lands, and wildlife habitat in southwestern Montana, and to creating new public trail systems there. For many years this work focused on accepting donated easements. But many farm and ranch families can't afford to donate easements, and over the last few years the land trust has joined with other community groups, local government, and TPL to raise local funds for open space protection. With the help of TPL's Conservation Finance Program, the land trust helped organize, promote, and pass Gallatin County's first open space bond measure in 2000 and has helped to place a renewal of that measure on this year's ballot. TPL has partnered with GVLT on several large projects, providing technical expertise and funding know-how. By accepting donated easements and (with TPL's help) combining local bond funds with federal funds and foundation grants, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust has protected over 14,500 acres to date, and is working with TPL to protect an additional 12,543 acres.

Truckee Donner Land Trust

The Truckee Donner Land Trust formed in 1990 in response to logging activity along the historic Emigrant Trail used by pioneers. In the years since, the land trust has conserved more than 3,500 acres in pursuit of its mission to protect recreational resources, scenic views, water quality, and historic properties, and currently the trust has 7,000 acres under option. One key project began when the land trust learned that a timber company was planning to sell picturesque Schallenberger Ridge overlooking Donner Lake, which is named for an ill-fated party of California-bound immigrants stranded there by winter snows in 1846. Donner Memorial State Park commemorates that event and protects some of the land around the mountain lake. But the company planned to harvest the timber on its adjacent 1,920 acres and then sell the land for development, ruining its potential for recreation and spoiling the historic atmosphere of the state park. The local land trust asked TPL to help negotiate an option agreement on the property, and then the two groups worked together to raise funds for its protection. In 2003 they added the land to Donner Memorial State Park, more than tripling the park's size. Through a series of other projects, the Truckee Donner Land Trust is now working to protect additional parcels around Schallenberger Ridge.

Pines and Prairies Land Trust

Founded in 2001 to preserve open space, clean air, and habitat for endangered species in central Texas, the Pines and Prairies Land Trust joined forces with TPL after a legal settlement generated a $1.75 million mitigation fund for regional land conservation. In an arrangement worked out by the court, TPL and the local land trust are joint overseers of the fund. The land trust uses its local knowledge and connections to choose projects, and it owns and manages the conservation lands. TPL, with its more extensive transaction experience, conducts negotiations and transactions. The two groups recently completed their first collaboration by protecting 302 acres as a new wildlife refuge on the border of Bastrop and Lee Counties, east of Austin. The largest conservation parcel in either county, the new refuge includes oak and pine uplands, a pond, and two of seven sandstone mesas locally known as the Yegua Knobs. With $1.2 million remaining in the mitigation fund, the partners have set their sights on their next project already.

Georgia Land Trust

The Georgia Land Trust was founded in 1994 as the Chattowah Open Land Trust, named for two prominent Georgia rivers: the Chattahoochee and the Etowah. In one of its first transactions, the trust accepted a gift of land along the Chattahoochee River from TPL–part of TPL's effort to create a 180-mile-long greenway along that river. Since then the Georgia Land Trust has become an important partner in TPL's Chattahoochee River Land Protection Campaign, helping to protect 7.4 miles of riverfront so far, plus 5,743 acres of riparian buffer land and 8.3 miles of the river's tributaries. The Georgia Land Trust has also protected coastal properties near Savannah, and southwest of that city the group's conservation efforts have helped prevent encroaching development in an eight-county area around the Fort Stewart military base. Recently, with TPL's assistance, the group formed a subsidiary urban land trust to help conserve land in metro Atlanta.