Innovations in Conservation, From the East Coast to the West and in Between

The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, in fall
The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, in fall (Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This continues our weeklong series on steps that individuals—both the hugely wealthy and those of ordinary means—and communities of any size in every part of the world, can take to protect the environment, at a time when national policy in the United States is headed the other way. The series began with news of a $165 million gift for preservation of coastal land in California, and followed with stories of efforts in Europe, then in several coastal American states; and then in Nebraska.

Today, we’ll hear accounts from readers on the Pacific Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, in New Mexico, points in Canada, and a range of other locales.

California. A reader writes:

We have an excellent land trust based just to the north of us in Trinidad, California, which is a little over 300 miles north of San Francisco. They have saved and are saving some spectacular “oceanfront property” for the benefit of us all.

It’s called Trinidad Coastal Land Trust.

Here is the map:

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I’m writing from Virginia to offer another partnership model to your series on land conservation in the United States.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation [is] a state agency created by the Virginia General Assembly in 1966 to preserve the natural, scenic, historic, scientific, open-space, and recreational areas of the Commonwealth.

As in your other examples, VOF does own and manage some conserved land for public recreation and wildlife habitat, but this represents a relatively small part of the land we work to conserve. Instead, the bulk of our land-conservation practice employs conservation easements. These are voluntary agreements with private landowners that limit future development of a property while keeping it in private ownership. Because of the public benefits associated with open space—improved water quality, scenic beauty, wildlife habitat and productive soils—landowners who donate easements are eligible to receive state and federal tax benefits.

VOF currently protects more than 800,000 acres in 107 counties and cities in Virginia through over 4,000 individual agreements with landowners. Our largest easement is held in partnership with the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy on over 11,00 acres on the Carvins Cove Natural Reserve, but we also protect small parcels of green space in urban areas, partnering with counties and cities on public-access projects.

We also partner with landowners like Matt Heldreth, a third-generation dairy farmer whose story we put on a short video as part of our 50th-anniversary commemoration last year. Matt is determined to make his family farm a success, and placing a conservation easement on the property is an integral part of his effort.

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A reader sends in a report on a successful effort to protect 4,000 acres of the Port Gamble Forest. It includes this video:

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I'm aware of several nonprofits/charities that own land for conservation in Canada, including the Bruce Trail Conservancy in Ontario, which aims to secure a 500-mile trail along the Niagara Escarpment, as well as the Land Conservancy in British Columbia.

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New Mexico:

Finally for today, a reader writes about complementary efforts in New Mexico, and about some of the complications of public and private partnerships for conservation.

Many states provide a variety of landowner benefits for placing a conservation easement on their property. The requirements vary from state to state, of course, so the degree of protection varies correspondingly.

My wife and I own a 150-acre inholding in the Santa Fe National Forest. For those not familiar with the term, an inholding is a parcel of private land, completely surrounded by the national forest. These exist for a variety of reasons, the most common probably being that the land was privately owned before the surrounding lands were declared national forest.

In our case, the land was homesteaded on then-federal lands which subsequently were declared national forest. We placed a conservation easement on the property, which is held by a nonprofit conservation organization that is responsible for ensuring the terms of the easement are met (and has legal standing to sue if they are not met). The easement runs in perpetuity.

In order to receive the benefits granted by the state of New Mexico the easement must meet certain minimum standards, but one is free to add additional restrictions. In our case we added numerous other clauses that prompted the state reviewer to say it was the strictest easement he had ever seen. Our goal was to preserve the land in its most natural possible state, which goes well beyond the state requirements. Under the easement, the land is better protected than the surrounding National Forest, which in reality is not very well protected, regardless of what one might think are the regulations protecting such lands. We have forbidden grazing, timbering, cultivation, subdivision, construction, hunting, trapping, and motorized travel, among other restrictions. Exceptions are granted to preserve the ecological health of the land, thus thinning for fire prevention is permitted but commercial logging is prohibited.

It is critical for donors to carefully vet their nonprofit partners and ensure that their goals will be achieved. My wife and I were longtime supporters of The Nature Conservancy because of its approach: If you want to protect land, don't just go whining to the feds, buy the land! Our support ended after several very large acquisitions in which the Conservancy allowed continued cattle grazing on the acquired lands, a policy that is completely antithetical to our beliefs ... Unless well-managed, cattle can be very damaging to riparian areas.

I’ve written to TNC to ask for their side of the cattle-grazing issue. In the meantime, you can see their shopping list of properties potentially available for preservation purchases here. (For the record: I have no connection to TNC or any of the other groups mentioned here. But I do like the idea of sharing and connecting stories of creative efforts to preserve the natural environment and improve communities in other ways.)

Happy New Year, and thanks for the reports.