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Conserving America’s Land

May 19, 2014

Americans live in red and blue states, but more often than not they vote green. Voters approved 148 out of 201 local and state ballot measures for parks and open space, nationwide between 20092013, according to the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation organization based in San Francisco.

The 74 percent success rate reflects a national green streak dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who got the modern conservation movement rolling by putting 230 million acres under federal protection — highlighted by the creation of five national parks.

“Land conservation is a core value of the American people regardless of whether people live in a red state or a blue state or a yellow state or a purple state,” says Lawrence Selzer, president of The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Arlington, Va.

The challenge, however, is becoming more complex. Preserving pristine wilderness areas remains important, but protecting green space where people live is also a big part of today’s conservation agenda.

“If you asked Teddy Roosevelt why he did it, he would say it was for nature and wildlife. Keeping people out was the goal,” says Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance, a national network of land trusts based in Washington, D.C. “Now, our goal is to invite people in.”

Conservationists have their work cut out for them. The U.S. population is projected to grow from 250 million in 1990 to a projected 420 million by 2060. Development will need to keep pace, putting continued pressure on unprotected forests, farms and wetlands that provide habitat, produce food, offer recreation and perform valuable ecological services such as flood control.

An average of 1.5 million acres of land per year was newly developed in the United States between 1982 and 2010, according to the latest National Resources Inventory published by the United States Department of Agriculture. That works out to 43 million total acres — or an area roughly the size of Missouri.

In the face of limited government support, the challenge for conservationists is to add as much or more land to the preservation rolls as is being bulldozed. A 2011 report by the Land Trust Alliance indicates they are succeeding. “What we learned was breathtaking,” Wentworth says.

According to the National Land Trust Census, state, local and national land trusts conserved 10 million acres from 2005 until 2010 — an average of 2 million acres a year.

The total number of acres conserved by the nation’s 1,700 land trusts grew from 24 million in 2000 to 37 million in 2005 to 47 million in 2010, making them the most dynamic force for land conservation in the United States today. While land trusts were adding 10 million acres to the preservation rolls between 2005 and 2010, the Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) — the largest source of federal funding for conservation acquisition — was adding 675,000 acres.

Land trusts are nonprofit organizations that work to acquire and preserve open space or obtain conservation easements. The easements keep land in private ownership but restrict how it can be developed so forests, farms and fields don’t become subdivisions, shopping malls and office parks.

In some cases, owners donate the land or easement, but land trusts also buy land and easements. In addition, they manage some of the land they protect, identify open space needs and advocate for plans and policies that support conservation.

Land trusts depend on private donations for their operating costs, but funding to purchase land and easements comes from a mix of private and public sources, ranging from individuals and foundations to local and state ballot issues and some government grants. 

Whether land trusts have been able to sustain the pace they set between 2005 and 2010 won’t be known until the next National Land Trust Census comes out in 2016.

“We don’t know (what happened) in 2011, 2012, 2013,” Wentworth says. “My guess is there was a slowdown in conservation just like there was a slowdown in real estate, but everything I’m hearing now is that it’s back up again.”

Acquisitions account for roughly one-third of the land being conserved in the United States, according to the Trust for Public Land. The rest is being conserved through conservation easements obtained by land trusts as well as local, state and federal government.

“Conservation easements are without question the fastest-growing segment of the environmental movement and they seem to be one of those things that are not polarized by politics,” Wentworth says.

Congress enacted an enhanced tax incentive in 2006 for landowners who donate conservation easements. The incentive expired in 2013, but appears to be headed to an extension after gaining bipartisan approval from the Senate Finance Committee this spring. In addition, more than 200 senators and representatives have co-sponsored legislation that would make the incentive permanent.

That’s not the only positive conservation news coming out of Washington, D.C., lately. The new five-year Farm Bill contains more than $1 billion for purchasing farmland conservation easements. “What makes it interesting was that everything else in the Farm Bill was cut and (conservation easement funding) was sustained at historic levels,” Wentworth says.

President Obama gave conservationists something else to cheer about by fully funding the LWCF in his proposed 2015 budget. The money for the LWCF comes from a sliver of the royalties from offshore oil and gas development. Although authorized to receive up to $900 million, the LWCF hasn’t been fully funded since 1998. Over the last six years, appropriations have ranged from $275 million to $450 million.

The Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is among the many conservation groups urging Congress to fully fund the LWCF. The refuge, which lies within the Connecticut River watershed, isn’t just home to fish and wildlife. It’s also home to 2.3 million people in four New England states.

About 38,000 acres of the watershed’s 7.2 million acres are preserved through acquisitions and conservation easements that provide habitat, control flooding and support the ecological health of the overall refuge. The Friends of the Conte are asking the LWCF to provide $5 million in 2015 to acquire 8,400 additional acres to protect forests, wetlands and streams.

“Land is more expensive here per acre than other places, but you get a lot more people interacting with nature close at hand,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council.

If conservation dollars don’t stretch as far in a place like the Conte Refuge as they do in less populated areas, that’s OK, because connecting with people matters as much or more as preserving the maximum amount of land per dollar, Wentworth says.

“That’s an emerging trend in our field,” he says. “More and more we’re talking about not all acres are created equal.”

With more than two million people, King County, Wash., is one of the most populous counties in the country. The Trust for Public Land worked with the county to save 226 acres of forest from being clear cut and possibly turned into exurban estates. The trust bought the property and held it until voters approved a parks and open space levy in 2013 that included funding to purchase the land to protect wildlife habitat and expand a regional trail system.

The Seattle King County REALTORS® endorsed the parks levy. “As REALTORS®, we don’t just sell houses, we sell communities and quality of life,” said Sam Pace, a broker with Executive Real Estate in Bellevue, Wash. “Great communities require us to step up and make strategic investments ... in things like great schools, transportation systems that work and amenities such as parks,” he said.

Another example of conservation close to home is the Nashville Naturally Open Space Plan. Created in 2001 by the Conservation Fund on behalf of the city of Nashville, the plan aims to preserve 22,000 acres of open space throughout Davidson County by 2035.

Tennessee has one of the highest rates of obesity in the country. The need to improve the health of Nashville residents helped drive the Nashville Naturally plan, which will expand opportunities for residents to bike, walk and play. Highlights to date include adding 33 miles of greenway trails and acquiring 1,336 acres of land to connect a series of existing parks.

Despite many successes, conservationists alone can only do so much to preserve land in the face of continued population growth.

“The preservation community is very active, but the development community will have a huge impact going forward,” says Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land.

The good news, Rogers says, is that development patterns are starting to take into account the value of preserving green space in and around a community. “There’s definitely a change in the wind,” he says. “There’s more people letting the land speak for itself ... and that really comes out of the smart growth movement.”

Serenbe, a master-planned community in Chattahoochee Hills outside of Atlanta, shows what’s possible. Less than one-third of the 1,000-acre property is slated for development. The rest will remain green space.

Like the rest of Chatahoochee Hills, Serenbe is zoned for one house per acre, but a transfer of development rights (TDR) ordinance provides a way to cluster development in designated areas and preserve green space without reducing the overall number of housing units that can be built in any given development. In Serenbe’s case that means 1,000 homes.

Although most lots in Serenbe are small, 98 percent of the home sites abut trails and green space, adding a 10 to 30 percent premium to the sales price of homes, says Garnie Nygren, director of operations. “We can make a lot more money doing this than if traditional development had occurred,” she says.

Serenbe is the first new community to be built in Chattahoochee Hills. The key for Serenbe’s developers was to rally support from other Chattahoochee Hills landowners for a new land use plan for the entire area — including the TDR ordinance — in order to maintain the area’s rural character while still allowing development.

“We all had to think bigger than ourselves and work together as landowners,” Nygren says. Otherwise, Serenbe would have become “a 1,000-acre island in a sea of subdivisions.”