A Conversation with J.T. Horn of The Trust for Public Land
On October 20th, about 140 writers, artists, students, and scientists will gather at the Hulbert Outdoor Center to participate in the fourth annual Northern Woodlands Conference. The weekend’s program will feature an eclectic combination of hands-on workshops, readings, and forest rambles. Although the sessions will vary in content and format, one theme will unite them all: people need forests. No group understands this better than The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national leader in forestland conservation and one of the event’s principal sponsors (along with The Bailey Charitable Foundation).
The Trust for Public Land is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting open space. TPL project managers like J.T. Horn negotiate real estate transactions that lead to the conservation of playgrounds, natural areas, working forests, and farmland. We recently sat down with J.T. to learn about his work in the Northeast.
What’s the central motivating idea behind your work at The Trust for Public Land?
It’s land for people. That’s the defining issue for us. We want to get people outdoors and connected with nature. Out of that comes preservation of wildlife habitat and working lands, plus economic opportunity on farms and in the forest. But the first place to start is land for people and getting people connected to nature.
How does TPL differ from most land trusts?
We operate as a land trust, but we’re somewhat unique in that we do not hold land ourselves. We will occasionally buy land and then hold it for a short time while it’s in transition, but we always leave the property with a permanent, long-term steward. Many times that’s a public agency, but we work with local land trusts, too. We believe in America’s public lands tradition, be it the New England town forest or the National Park system. When lands get transferred to public agencies as a state park, or state forest, or a town forest, we believe this can serve the public good.
The Trust for Pubic Land has been a national leader in the community forest movement. Can you explain how a community forest differs from a town forest?
A town forest is often a community forest, but not always. Community forests have to be permanently protected, there has to be meaningful community participation in the decision-making process, and there must be a thoughtful management plan. It’s also important that benefits that flow off the land – timber harvest revenue, outdoor recreation activities, sustainable tourism economies – serve local people. We think of the community forest movement as not just protecting land, but protecting assets that define the character of a place.
When selecting projects, how do you assess the value of any individual property?
Every project is different, but we’re always trying to identify the key values for that community. They might say, “We are trying to reinvent ourselves from a resource extraction economy to a recreation economy.” We might look at the situation and say, “Great! Can we develop a trail system here? Is there a need for a viewshed buffer for your main attraction?” Other towns might say, “Our traditional ties to the land are about hunting, fishing, and trapping and we’re losing access because lands are getting posted.” So if that’s the issue, we say, “Okay, let’s work on a piece of forest conservation that provides habitat and guarantees public access.”
Has there been a shift over time in the way you gauge the value of a property?
Yes. Two themes have recently become paramount. One is climate. How will this property help the community become more resilient as it faces a changing climate. The other is economy. Conservation in and of itself is a hard sell in some places, but conservation as part of an economic development strategy is the kind of work that a lot of rural communities are focusing on.
How do your efforts in forested landscapes relate to TPL activities in more populated areas?
We believe that everyone should have access to nature, from main streets to mountaintops, inner cities to wilderness. In many urban and suburban areas, that means fighting for the last piece of open space or having to do restoration work to bring about an open space outcome. There is a big effort in cities right now to get kids access to nature, so we’ve launched the 10-minute walk campaign, which is based on the belief that everyone in America should be within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground where they can go outside and exercise.
So you’re not just meeting the need for access to nature, you’re also expanding the community of people who care about open space.
Right. The Crotched Mountain School and Hospital is another good example of this. It’s a truly inspirational place in southern New Hampshire that serves people with disabilities. The foundation that built that school said, “We really want to connect our students and patients with nature because we feel that it should be part of the therapeutic environment.” And they were blessed with having a 1,400-acre property, with only 200 acres used for campus facilities. So they wanted to conserve 1,200 acres and build an accessible tree house, docks for boating and swimming, camping facilities that would be accessible to people with disabilities, and a 3-mile trail system designed for fully accessible recreation. So we went to the US Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which is a funding source for working forest conservation easements, and designed an easement that combined a traditional working forest with a unique, wheelchair-accessible recreational experience.
What links do you see between your mission and the Northern Woodlands Conference?
The conference brings people together and connects them with nature. And it builds a sense of community around the stewardship of forests. We take a similar approach in our work, only with a focus on land protection. We see a natural alignment here, which is why we’ve been proud to support the event since it first began.