Report

Preserving These Other Edens (Summer 2007 Trust Magazine article)

  • September 06, 2007
  • By Sandra Salmans

In communities like Westport throughout the northeastern United States, it is a race against time. As one generation gives way to the next, an unprecedented number of property transfers are placing at risk the pristine forests, farmland and waterways that have long defined the landscape of New England—and been identified with crusty Yankees like Gonet. Major conservation groups agree that, given the escalating pace of ownership changes, the fate of the Northeast's last major conservation resources will be sealed within a decade.

But thanks to the dedication of people like Gonet and land trusts such as the one represented by Cucchi, land is being saved from development. From 2000 to 2005, local and state land trusts—nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to land conservation— conserved open spaces at a rate of more than 1 million acres per year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based group.

There are two ways to protect these lands. Owners can sell or donate their land to a trust for preservation in perpetuity. Or they can sell or donate a conservation easement, a legal agreement that permanently limits uses of the land. A farmer can continue to farm the land, for example, but not build additional structures on it. An easement also allows the owner to sell the land—under the same restrictions— or pass it on to heirs.

The tax advantages to an easement are substantial. Owners receive a sizable one-time tax deduction, their real estate taxes plummet, and they can bequeath the property without triggering a huge tax bill for their heirs.

To spur these land conservation efforts, in 2006 Pew launched the Northeast Land Trust Consortium and allocated $1 million in matching funds to encourage donations; Pew provides $1 for every $5 raised, once funds raised reach a specified level.

The consortium was developed with a set of core values: conservation organizations should be models of nonprofit best practice; wilderness protection is vital; forestry should be practiced in a sustainable manner; the public should have low impact access to conservation lands; culture and history are important community-conservation values; and local agriculture must be protected and encouraged.

The consortium's specific brief was to boost the fundraising, acquisition capacity and technical strength of the region's most effective land trusts.

The fundraising effort was so successful that in its pilot phase, the consortium exceeded its goal of $5 million, attracting $6.6 million from 61 donors. Working with area land trusts, it used these funds to support four key projects in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts that ultimately protected 379,900 acres in perpetuity:

+The Katahdin Iron Works in Maine, with the Appalachian Mountain Club. A 37,000-acre parcel of land, the Iron Works— some 50 miles from famed Mount Katahdin, the state's highest mountain—is the first part of an ambitious initiative to protect key properties in an area known as the 100-Mile Wilderness.

That region includes some of Maine's most scenic vistas, including three mountain peaks and 15 miles of the Appalachian trail.

+Down East Lakes, with the New England Forestry Foundation. The goal is to acquire 342,000 forested acres in eastern Maine. This area is positioned between tracts that are already protected, including 200,000 acres of state, federal and Native American lands. As a result, the project, when it is completed, will secure 1 million acres of uninterrupted habitat for endangered animals and plants.

+New Hampshire's Squam Range, with the Lakes Region Conservation Trust. Bordering the White Mountain National Forest, the range is one of the largest unfragmented blocks of land remaining unprotected in New Hampshire.

+The Allen's Neck area of Westport, Mass., with The Trustees of Reservations. Efforts are focused on two working farms in an area noteworthy for its strong cultural and historic connections to the land and the sea, including an annual clambake that has been going on uninterrupted since 1888.

Earlier this year, Pew boosted its contribution to its “seed fund” to $2 million, which will enable it to match a total of $10 million in donations. The consortium is also inviting donors to contribute to the seed fund, providing additional matching funds as a spur to still more philanthropy. And it is planning to work with land trusts beyond the initial four and extend its reach through the Connecticut and Hudson valleys all the way to rural western Pennsylvania.

In each of its partnerships with a land trust, the consortium vets the arrangement, helps raise the money and matches it with funds from Pew. The local land trust, rather than the consortium, holds title to the property and maintains it over the long term. “Once the deal is done, we're like the Lone Ranger—we move on,” says Tom Curren, the consortium's project director. “We leave the local trusts stronger than we found them.”

Curren came to fundraising through a very local commodity—maple syrup. Born in Boston, he was employed as a social worker with the Spaulding Youth Center in Tilton, N.H., in 1982 when he had a bright idea: Why not buy a maple syrup evaporator for the center and let the youngsters make some spending money? The director agreed initially, but later cut the item out of his budget, so Curren convinced the evaporator manufacturer to sell him the product at half price and persuaded a local family foundation to donate the cost. At that point, his director decided that he might be deployed for more fundraising.

“You own a suit?” he asked Curren.

“I own a sports coat,” Curren offered.

Twelve years later, Curren's fundraising talents—and interest in conservation—brought him to the Lakes Region Conservation Trust, a community-based land trust representing 31 towns in central New Hampshire. He became its president in 1998, leaving to join Pew in early 2006 to launch the consortium, which he directs from his New Hampshire home base.

In selecting the projects, Curren notes, the consortium looks to community-based conservation initiatives for guidance, relying heavily on the expertise of local trusts to select the sites that are the best candidates for preservation because of their location and unique characteristics. For example, the Down East Lakes Forestry Partnership has documented that the land it seeks to protect is home to more than 10 percent of the loon population in northern Maine.

In Maine, the Appalachian Mountain Club had begun the planning process nearly a decade earlier for a project that would protect the 100-Mile Wilderness region. Forestry companies were divesting themselves of acreage they had held for hundreds of years, setting local economies in turmoil and putting Maine's woods in peril. The Maine Woods Initiative, of which the centerpiece is the Katahdin Iron Works parcel, seeks to protect up to 100,000 acres.

The project has many objectives, only one of which is land conservation. It also seeks to give access for recreation; encourage community economic development through sustainable timber harvesting; foster an eco-tourism industry; and promote education, using the area to introduce local schoolchildren to the outdoors.

Although the mountain club had agreed in 2003 to buy the Katahdin Iron Works parcel from International Paper Company, it still had to raise millions to pay for it. That is where the consortium came in. It helped raise more than $2 million in 2006; the goal for 2007 is to cover the purchase price in its entirety and endow a stewardship fund that would support the area's ongoing maintenance.

“If you're a prospective donor, hearing that a project has Pew's stamp of approval does have an influence,” says AMC's executive director, Andrew Falender. He also cites approvingly the extent to which Tom Curren becomes involved with the projects and the donors. Together, the two have met with donors in locations as disparate as a soul food restaurant in New Haven, Conn., and a lodge in northern Maine. While AMC has worked with other challenge grants in the past, Falender says, the consortium's hands-on approach “is where it has really differentiated itself from other matching programs.”

The desire to preserve agriculture was the driving force in Westport, which has a greater number of active farms than virtually any other community in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. At the mouth of Cape Cod and within a two-hour drive of Boston, Westport could potentially serve a big market for organic produce.

But situated on the Westport River, with miles of sought-after waterfront property, it is also a prime candidate for development. That led The Trustees of Reservations, which is the nation's oldest regional land conservation trust and operates throughout Massachusetts, to target it for preservation.

Gonet's farm is part of an area of farmland and shoreline in Westport and nearby Dartmouth, where the trustees' goal is to tie together and protect several adjoining parcels of land. As Cucchi notes, “Large blocks of farmland are more economically viable than smaller ones, because you need a critical mass to justify all the support services.” If more and more farmland is sold for development, the amount available for farming will diminish, and so will the interest of suppliers that support the farmers.

Although agricultural efforts such as dairy farms are succumbing to competition, the hope is that farmers will eventually be better able to capitalize on the growing interest in locallygrown food, particularly as the rising cost of energy will make long-distance transportation punitive. In this view, those farms that survive will prosper.

That, in fact, is the scenario already being played out at River Rock Farm, a lush expanse on the east branch of the Westport River that is owned by Paul Schmid and his sister, Lisa Schmid Alvord. On the farm's 250 acres and 50 more leased acres, the two are raising grass-fed Black Angus beef cattle.

Schmid and Alvord grew up on the land—their parents bought the first piece in 1961, initially as a summer home—and have a fondness for it that has translated into a desire to preserve it just the way it is. Of the land they own outright, “most of it is under protection or will be,” says Schmid; he and his sister sold an easement to Massachusetts for a portion of the land and donated an easement for the rest.

Although he has run the Westport Land Conservation Trust's fundraising campaign for several years, last year Schmid donated directly to Pew. The match was “very compelling,” he says. Beyond that, “to find a partner who's willing to stand with us, that's incredible,” he adds. “It meant so much for me to be able to say, what we're doing has the endorsement of a major charitable organization like Pew. It was confirmation that what we're doing matters.”

It was money raised by The Trustees of Reservations with the support of the consortium that helped Gus Gonet decide what to do with his property, nearly 28 acres near Allen's Pond. An appraisal had determined that no fewer than 12 homes could be built on his land, giving it an estimated value of $1.6 million. (Had it been waterfront property, the price would likely have been an order of magnitude greater.) As a restricted farm, the land was worth only $500,000. That meant that Gonet could sell the easement for about $1.1 million.

Instead, Gonet agreed to accept $400,000 for the easement. Half of that sum came from the town, the other half from the land trust. The arrangement preserved his property as farmland and provided “a little income for retirement,” an outcome that satisfied him. “We've lived here all our lives,” he says. “Why would we want to change things?”

Sandra Salmans is a senior writer for Trust.