Land trusts gain ground through collaboration
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series focusing on how land trusts in Northwest Connecticut are working in concert to tackle conservation challenges.
The nearly two dozen land trusts in rural Northwest Connecticut may be small, but they are mighty when it comes to collaborative conservation efforts.
A first-of-its-kind research project examining the pace and scale of conservation in the state’s Northwest Corner illustrates the extent of this collaboration.
Working with 19 land trusts, the Kent-based Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy (NCLC) has collected and documented data showing the total amount of land that has been conserved each year in the region over the past decade.
The publication’s findings, said Catherine Rawson, executive director of NCLC, will serve as a roadmap to future conservation efforts.
“It’s not every day that we release a publication that demonstrates that work. It’s a fantastic vantage point from which to look out into the future and gauge how much land we expect to protect by 2023.”
Northwest Connecticut, said Rawson, is the first and only region in the state to track and prepare data on the pace of its collective conservation efforts.
“We are grateful to work in this community of strong conservation partners. It is so exciting to share the collective summaries of the region’s land trusts and what they are all able to accomplish together,” said the NCLC executive director.
Tim Abbott, Housatonic Valley Association’s (HVA) regional conservation and Greenprint Collaborative director, said he views the new NCLC report, titled “The Pace and Scale of Conservation in Northwest Connecticut” as a much needed “call to action.’
“It’s sobering and inspiring,” said Abbott. “It supports data that is coming in from beyond our region. And that is that we need to be doing more and on a wider scale” to meet the pressures of the changing climate and adverse human impact on the environment.
“If we do it piecemeal,” he said,” that won’t be up to the scale of the threat. You need partners.”
Collaboration among state and Litchfield County land trusts, said those in the field, has gained momentum in the past decade.
In increasing numbers, land trusts have come to realize that partnering with other agencies or larger entities can allow for greater transaction expertise, increased funding opportunities, enhanced credibility, more organizational capacity, shared resources including staff and technology, cooperation on easement stewardships, positive publicity, and increased land protection overall.
“The addition of professional help for land trusts has been huge,” said Bart Jones, president of the 35-year-old Cornwall Conservation Trust, Inc. (CCT), who credited collaboration as a game-changer and said professional help “makes fundraising for conservation work critical.”
He noted that the trend away from all-volunteer land trusts started in earnest about 15 years ago through shared resources and resulted in a heightened level of professionalism and credibility.
“We couldn’t have acquired as much land as we have without it,” said Jones of his organization.
Accreditation, too, has upped the game for land trusts.
“The other thing that has shifted is the emphasis on land trust standards and practices,” said HVA’s Abbott. More than half of the state’s 30 or so accredited land trusts are in the Northwest Corner and belong to the Litchfield Hills Greenprint Collaborative.
“Northwest Connecticut land trusts have taken accreditation very seriously. It gives us a common language and helps us feel comfortable that we are all talking about the same things,” added Connie Manes, Greenprint director and executive director of the Kent Land Trust (KLT).
As land conservation becomes more urgent, complex and expensive, land trusts are being creative in expanding their leverage and capabilities by forging regional conservation partnerships with entities like the Cornwall-based HVA, Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy and others.
For instance, HVA’s Follow the Forest initiative unites land trusts and communities against the persistent threat of forest fragmentation. Important woodland species need room to roam, and unbroken stretches of forested land act as a “wildlife highway,” providing safe habitat and food.
“None of us lives in isolation, which is quite clear when you look at the extensive wildlife corridor of which we are smack in the middle,” noted KLT’s Manes.
“Animals and birds don’t stop at town lines and people don’t either,” said Manes, who owns a private equity consulting firm and chairs the Kent Conservation Commission.
Manes, like many other land trust members interviewed, wear several “hats” in their capacity as conservationists often serving on town land-use boards in addition to volunteering or directing at various nonprofit groups, or as private consultants.
Community outreach targets students
Maria Grace, executive director of the 300-member Sharon Land Trust (SLT), which boasts nine public preserves with 24 miles of hiking trails and includes Kent and Salisbury in its area of operation, stressed the importance of community outreach programs aimed at adults and children.
SLT is a partner of Follow the Forest, a regional initiative that seeks to protect and connect forests and promote the safe passage of wildlife throughout the Northeast, from the Hudson Valley to Canada.
Grace spoke enthusiastically about recent field trips and outdoor adventures held jointly with the Salisbury Association Land Trust (SALT) and HVA’s Paul Singer.
“We educate people about our forests and how they need to better connect them,” said the SLT executive director. Field trips with students include training on how to access connectors and collect data.
Strength in numbers
Land trusts are finding creative ways to support each other.
For example, Kent and Warren conservationists recently joined forces with the purchases of their adjoining preserves, Kent Land Trust’s East Kent Hamlet Nature Preserve and Warren Land Trust’s soon-to-be-open Cunningham Road Preserve.
SLT’s Grace pointed to the 52-acre Tory Hill property, near the Lakeville/Sharon border, as a prime example of successful collaboration with SALT.
Tory Hill was a joint project involving several landowners, the state of Connecticut, and others to preserve a prime scenic vista obscured by rampant spread of invasive plant species.
Working in tandem, the two land trusts collaborated, raised funds and closed on the open space, which is managed by the Salisbury Association.
Double protection on easements
Holding conservation easements on each other’s preserves is also a way land trusts join forces.
“Sometimes it’s desirable to have double protection on a property, where a land trust owns the property, and another land trust holds the conservation easement on it, so both are monitoring the property and making sure it stays preserved,” explained Shelley Harms, a private land consultant since 2014 who serves as executive director of both the Salisbury and Cornwall land trusts.
Harms also volunteers as co-president of the Norfolk Land Trust (NLT) and has assisted several other groups with acquisition grants and accreditation projects.
Speaking of collaboration, she said, “Norfolk Land Trust owns a property that Winchester Land Trust holds the easement on, and Norfolk Land Trust holds an easement on property owned by Colebrook Land Conservancy, also on property owned by Aton Forest, also on property owned by Great Mountain Forest.”
A regional organization like NCLC, Harms pointed out, also has capacity to work in a town where there isn’t a local land trust. She also credited NCLC for hosting Green Drinks, where land trust officials meet informally to discuss various topics, and by hosting the small area land trust meetings.
Shared mapping, monitoring systems
Several land trust leaders also pointed to NCLC’s technology assistance in the form of its shared LENS aerial photo monitoring system.
“Both HVA Greenprint and the Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy have been helpful to the smaller land trusts,” said Harms. “HVA has a terrific map person, Stacy Deming, who does our conservation maps.”
SLT’s Grace praised the value of a shared satellite monitoring system. “We have about 50 parcels, so it allows us greater flexibility,” particularly when it comes to annual inspections required under the accreditation process, she noted.
“We now have 11 land trusts who use our purchased satellite software to inspect their properties,” reported NCLC’s Rawson.
‘A tightly-knit, collegial group’
The sharing of staff is vital to success, said Manes. Land trusts share not only administrative staff, but also summer interns, bookkeepers, and AmeriCorps teams of service youth.
“We share information about what works in our organizations, examples of policies, procedures and grant applications. We co-sponsor trainings and public educational programs, and we conduct public outreach.”
At one point, she noted, HVA was sharing an administrative person with three different land trusts.
“It may seem byzantine when one first encounters the many organizations working in land conservation in New England, but the people, the countless impassioned volunteers and professionals who work on conservation in our region and throughout Connecticut are a tightly-knit, collegial group.
“We have a head start on collaborative efforts because the trust, relationships and infrastructure for collaboration are already here, built over decades to a place of great strength and opportunity.”
Coming up: Northwest Corner land trusts bear the burden of region’s conservation future.
Northwest Connecticut land trusts
Cornwall Conservation Trust
Housatonic Valley Association
Kent Land Trust
Norfolk Land Trust
Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy
Kent – (860) 927-1927
Salisbury Association Land Trust
Sharon Land Trust