By Sally Loomis, HLT Executive Director
Before I worked for a land trust, I assumed that any land an owner was willing to donate for conservation ought to be protected. Why wouldn’t we want to conserve as much land as possible?
When I started my first job in land conservation, I quickly realized how complex this issue is. Every potential project requires an extensive evaluation that considers factors such as the conservation values of the property, the time and financial investment necessary to complete the project, and the needs of the local community—including in housing and development.
So how does Hilltown Land Trust decide what projects to take on? Our project evaluation process begins with a conversation with the current landowner to determine goals and expectations.
First we need to determine the method of land conservation. Does the current owner wish to donate or sell a Conservation Restriction (CR)* or to transfer ownership to Hilltown Land Trust? Both options come with challenges and responsibilities, and it is important that the method meet both the needs of the current owner and HLT. Even if the land is a donation, there are significant costs associated with conserving any property. Are there grants or donors who can cover costs that go beyond what the organization can afford? These things determine whether or not the project is financially feasible.
Timing and property size are other important factors. Land conservation is a cumbersome process, and the effort is not proportional to the amount of land protected. It can take almost as much time and work to protect twenty acres as it does two hundred. Once HLT makes a commitment to work on a given conservation project, there are many additional steps that can take a year or longer to complete.
After the initial conversation, HLT evaluates the site using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping data and conducts an initial site visit to get a better picture of the property. We gather information about the wildlife and plant habitat, forest and agricultural soils, endangered or threatened species present, proximity to other protected land, and current or potential recreational uses.
Using these data, our staff, Board, and committee members evaluate the project, while considering HLT’s mission and goals. Each conservation organization has different criteria to determine if a project is a good fit for the organization’s mission. For HLT, factors such as wildlife habitat (especially for rare or endangered species), public recreation opportunities, proximity to other protected land, climate change resiliency, the size of the parcel, and threat from development all weigh heavily in the decision to move forward.
Even if the property is desirable for conservation, it might not be the right for fit for HLT. If the current or future land management needs, intended uses, or funding don’t line up with our mission, or if the project is next to a larger piece of land conserved by another organization, we may refer the owner to another organization that better meets their needs.
One of HLT’s current conservation projects is an excellent example of a good project fit. The property is relatively small by Hilltown standards (fifty five acres), but it connects other conserved properties, has more than twenty acres of priority habitat for rare and endangered species, and includes a well-used recreational trail. While the development threat on this property is low given the limited road frontage, protecting the habitat values and trail are high priorities that can be addressed with a well-crafted Conservation Restriction.
The landowner is willing to donate a CR on this land to HLT and cover some of the many costs associated with land conservation. The state’s Conservation Land Tax Credit Program will offer some compensation to the landowner once the deal is completed, ensuring they do not take a financial loss by donating conservation land. In this case, HLT’s decision was fairly simple and straightforward, but it isn’t always this easy!
While I wish we could conserve more of the project inquiries that come to HLT, as a small, community organization, we have to carefully choose which opportunities to pursue. A successful land conservation project meets the goals of the land owner, HLT, the species living on the land, and the broader community. By considering these factors at each step along the way, HLT aims to make each project a successful one!
* A CR (also known as a Conservation Easement) is a legal agreement between a landowner and a recognized organization such as a land trust, state conservation agency, or town conservation commission. When a property is placed under a CR it remains privately owned and managed, while the partner organization accepts certain monitoring and enforcement responsibilities to ensure the conservation values of the land are not compromised.