Rich valley farmlands, lush hilltown forests and dramatic mountains: These open spaces in western Massachusetts are so familiar that we easily take them for granted. Yet, it’s only through the concerted efforts of many individuals and organizations that so many of these natural areas have been protected from development.
In fact, Massachusetts is the birthplace of the modern land conservation movement. For more than 130 years, the Commonwealth has been a leader in conserving its lands and waters. In the spring of 1891, the Massachusetts Legislature established The Trustees of Public Reservations “for the purposes of acquiring, holding, maintaining and opening to the public beautiful and historic places within the Commonwealth.” Since then, land trusts have matured into a broad-based national movement that reaches into remote corners of nearly every state, including both rural and urban areas.
I’ve spent most of the last forty years as part of this movement, helping launch more than a dozen land trusts in New York state, most of which are still active. Land trusts have made a major contribution to the protection of nature for decades by conserving undeveloped lands close to home for millions of people. Western Massachusetts has a number of effective land trusts, including the 53-year-old Kestrel Land Trust, based in Amherst, for which I now serve as Board President.
Land trusts work on many fronts to protect environmentally sensitive land from development. We do this by working closely with local governments and enlisting the voluntary cooperation of landowners to permanently protect their land. Much of this work occurs through real estate transactions that involve many parties, including landowners and local, state, and federal agencies. Unless landowners choose to donate voluntary conservation easements, this process also requires a lot of money.
While professional nonprofit land trusts rely on individual donors to support their operations, the big dollars required for local land deals often come from federal pots of funding. It can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to conserve the large swaths of forest that are critical for protecting wildlife habitat; mitigating the impacts of climate change, and providing public recreation opportunities.
The national organization that provides support and professional training for land trusts across the country is the Land Trust Alliance (LTA). Nearly 950 land trusts are members of LTA, each working locally in their own unique communities using similar techniques. Together, land trusts have protected more than 61 million acres nationwide and are aiming to protect another 60 million by the end of this decade.
Land trusts serve as a conduit between those huge pots of federal funding and on-the-ground preservation of local forests, farms, waterways, and other public lands. It’s critical that the federal leaders who control the purse strings understand the importance of this connection. That’s why the LTA coordinates a lobby week in our nation’s capital each year. With land trust leaders from across the country, I spent several days in Washington in April, meeting with staff members of our legislative delegation to encourage increased federal funding for land conservation.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that land conservation is a high priority on both sides of the aisle. In this era of political polarization, land conservation is a bipartisan issue that stirs the hearts of folks across the political spectrum. With all the talk about slashing budgets and brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, it was refreshing to hear that land conservation programs are not among those on the chopping block.
One of the critical federal programs the LTA focuses on is the Farm Bill. This is a package of legislation passed roughly every five years that connects the food on our plates, the farmers who produce that food, and the natural resources – soil, air and water – that make growing food possible. It also provides the largest single source of federal funding for private land conservation.
And it’s not just for farmlands: this funding also helps protect grasslands, wetlands and forests. While in Washington, I was working with LTA to lobby for the creation of a new Forest Conservation Easement Program (FCEP) under the Farm Bill. This program would keep private forest land in forest use by purchasing development rights from private landowners using conservation easements, an innovative tool that modern land trusts use extensively. Preventing the loss of forests to development is a key element in addressing the climate crisis. The upcoming Farm Bill will significantly increase funding to save farmland and forests. Our legislative delegation has been in the forefront of sponsoring and supporting legislation that expands federal funding, including last year’s “Inflation Reduction Act,” which dedicated unprecedented levels of funding to the battle against climate change and the preservation of natural systems.
The challenge many federal agencies face is that they lack sufficient staff capacity to administer this unprecedented pool of public funding. That’s where local organizations come in: much of this funding will be channeled through land trusts and state and local governments. Some land trusts – like Kestrel – are expanding their professional staff to help maximize federal investment in the Valley’s forests and farms, thanks to community support from their members. This is a time of real opportunity to secure the future of threatened landscapes in the Valley, and bring more positive conservation impact home. If you want to help make the most of this important opportunity, support your local land trust.
Joel Russell (he/him) is a semi-retired conservation and land use lawyer and community planner based in Northampton. He co-founded and served as executive director of the Dutchess Land Conservancy in New York State, and helped launch many other land trusts. He has served on the boards of the Valley Land Fund and the Conway School of Landscape Design, and currently serves as Kestrel Land Trust board president.
Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 14 years. After more than three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the center’s doors and trails are once again open at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.