Conserve More Land Today through Parcel Aggregation

Harvard Forest recently produced a report called Wildlands and Woodlands, A Vision for the New England Landscape. The vision calls for a long-term conservation effort that would conserve 70 percent of New England’s forests – a bold objective.

The question now becomes: how can this be accomplished?

The traditional method of working with willing landowners to conserve individual tracts of land one at a time has been a successful and popular tool, but it’s time consuming and not very cost effective. Changes to zoning and land use regulations to conserve the public values in private lands has also been effective, but this too is slow and often contentious. The public acquisition of a vast forest infrastructure is politically impossible; it also runs counter to Wildlands & Woodlands’ commitment to the retention of private ownership and values.

One concept that I and others have been promoting is called “aggregation,” the bundling of many individual land conservation opportunities into one larger project. This approach has emerged from experience with a handful of conservation projects that successfully conserved large landscapes by simultaneously attracting the interest of dozens of motivated landowners and the imagination of funders interested in a vision of retaining intact forest landscapes that could be managed for diverse values.

Although land trusts often find it difficult to work collaboratively, this doesn’t have to be the case. An example can be found in western Massachusetts, where seven land trusts are now cooperating rather then competing to secure funding to purchase conservation easements on more than 10,000 acres of forest held by 71 individual private landowners.

One of the land trust partners, the New England Forestry Foundation, is serving as the “conservation intermediary” of this project. As the larger, more well-known entity, they are the primary applicant for funding from private foundations and federal and state grants. The individual forest parcels in the project were selected and prioritized by local land trust partners based on local priorities and established state, regional, and national criteria. The local land trusts were able to secure options from the landowners to purchase conservation easements at 75 percent of the appraised value. Consequently, each land trust invested up front in the cost of staff time and appraisals to set up the project. As an example, one partner, the Franklin Land Trust, worked with four consulting foresters in an eight-town region to identify 80 landowners who were committed forest stewards with an interest in the long-term conservation of portions of their land. The properties were mapped to highlight their values, and grant funds were secured for appraisals. Forty seven of the landowners agreed to the appraisal step and 29 granted an option to sell the conservation easement.

The aggregation process has provided many benefits to the individual land trusts involved in the project (Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, Berkshire Natural Resources Council, Monterey Land Preservation Trust, East Quabbin Land Trust, Franklin Land Trust, and Kestrel Trust). Coordination of fundraising for the large acreage brought access to funding sources that would not have been available to smaller individual projects. Interactions at monthly meetings have revealed many shared interests, identified common donors, and enhanced the exchange of information and resources. A volunteer leadership committee made up of representatives of each of the participating land trusts and others has begun the process of identifying and cultivating individuals, foundations, and business interests to make three-year pledges toward the fundraising goal of $20 million. To date, $7 million has been raised; a part time staff person has been hired to lead the effort to secure the remaining $13 million needed to complete the project. Meanwhile, as the land trusts have increased their efficiency in tackling larger projects, they have all continued to advance their separate projects and goals.

This western Massachusetts pilot project is being replicated in 14 areas around New England. I have been meeting with land trusts that share an interest in increasing the pace of conservation. By aggregating projects, they may be able to secure funding from sources that have not been interested in the past. One of the attractions of aggregation is cost efficiency: more work gets done at lower cost by having multiple appraisals completed at one time, grouping baseline documentation field work, and sharing a common conservation easement monitoring and enforcement fund.

An important goal of this larger effort is to build grassroots support for broad-scale conservation and to find new funding for the purchase of conservation easements on private forest lands, through programs such as climate change legislation. Combining these efforts in New England with similar projects in California, the Southeast, and Midwest may provide the catalyst needed for legislators to recognize the important role private stewards provide in protecting the public values found in privately owned forest lands.

Keith Ross works for LandVest specializing in land conservation transactions, and was the originator and staff director of NEFF’s successful 762,000-acre Pingree Conservation Easement in Maine in 2000.


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