By Hannah Heimbuch
One of the amazing things about the work of land trusts across America is the size of its impact compared to its airtime, said Washington D.C.-based conservationist Rob Aldrich following a visit to Homer last week.
“Land conservation is one of the best-kept secrets in the environmental sector,” he said.
Land trusts around the nation are responsible for preserving 50 million acres. That’s equivalent to about 60 percent of the 84 million acres held in U.S. national parks. And yet, much of it happens outside the public eye.
That, however, is changing.
Aldrich joined representatives from seven Alaska land trust organizations and several national organizations in Homer for the Alaska Statewide Gathering of Land Trusts last week. This year’s theme, community conservation, goes right to the heart of Aldrich’s new position as director of community conservation with the Land Trust Alliance.
Community conservation is about involving citizens in the lasting, professional work being done by land trusts around the country, he said, making people aware of land conservation work and opening a dialogue with communities about what they want from their open spaces.
“For us it’s a brand-new program,” Aldrich said. “And the Alaska land trusts are really out in front. … They recognized early on that community support is critical to their success.”
Community conservation focuses on the connection between people and land, he said, making it stronger, and translating that bond into meaningful preservation work that answers community needs and wants.
That focus at Homer’s meeting gathered representatives from Anchorage/Mat-Su’s Great Land Trust, the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, the Alaska Farmland Trust, the Southeast Alaska Land Trust, the Native Land Conservancy of Cordova and Arctic Village, and the Interior Land Trust. Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont helped organize and facilitate the three-day conversation, which also included land trust partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Coastal Program, Pacific Coast Joint Venture and the Conservation Fund.
For Marie McCarty, director of the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust in Homer, bringing the greater Alaska land trust community even further together is an essential step to broadening community input into the land trust’s professional work.
“We’re learning better how to talk with our community about conserving land in the places where we live,” McCarty said. “The goal was to try to learn how to better bring the Alaska land trusts into our communities’ consciousness, and show them how we’re investing in lands that are keeping our communities healthy.”
That might mean encouraging use and exploration of preserved lands, identifying community recreation needs, or establishing ambassador lands — like the Calvin Coyle Trail area in Homer — to serve as a public representation of land trust work.
KHLT holds 3,000 acres of preserved land, McCarty said, but like many land trusts, it supports land preservation in many other ways that don’t end up in that final acreage account.
“The thing that’s interesting about land trusts is a lot of what we do is help make deals happen,” she said. “So we may not wind up with the land on our books, but we’ll help our partners.”
This was the case with a stretch of property at Diamond Creek, she said, which the land trust held briefly moment before giving it to the city of Homer.
This growing ability of land trusts to broker land exchanges for preservation — both on their behalf and on behalf of partner organizations — is one of the hallmarks of change America is seeing in its professional land trusts, Aldrich said.
“Land trusts are becoming more professional, more strategic, more effective, and with that people are starting to take notice,” he said. “Also we have this whole new initiative around conservation defense, that is multilayers of how land trusts can defend the land they’ve preserved.”
Land trusts are growing in number around the country, up to 1,700 now, and as their influence and professional abilities increase, so does their ability to create a lasting connection between people and land.
“You’ll see more of us talking to our communities about what communities need,” McCarty said, “and what the community sees as important for conservation.”
This broad-scoping pursuit of community-led conservation has his office taking note, Aldrich said.
“Alaska land trusts are pretty remarkable,” he said. “They could be a model for land trust communities in other states.”
His organization hopes to use Alaska’s example of collaboration and community initiative as a long-term case study, and then model, to show trusts in other areas how to reach their own goals.
“We look for land trusts that are doing it right, then we highlight what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it,” Aldrich said. “We help them tell their story to other land trusts.”