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As natural areas and wilderness are eaten up by our homes, farms, roadways and industrial development, what can the average person do to help protect nature? In the US the rate per hour of land “development” is an alarming 180 acres. Transferring private land by sale or donation to a Land Trust enables land owners to protect cherished areas from future development and preserve natural habitats for the benefit of wildlife, natural flora and human recreation.

These agreements can be developed with flexible terms to accommodate present and short-term needs of the current land owner as well as their long-term vision for the land.

For Ruth Masters, one of a growing number of conservation donors, working with land trusts was a small but real solution to the loss of nature.

“The neighborhood is expanding at breakneck speed, and I don’t have any kids to consult with. This development is right outside my property – and they’re moving in like wildfire. I realized I couldn’t take it upstairs with me, so I have done all I can think of to protect it so it does not get destroyed.”

Ruth donated 18 of her 20 acres to the local government, so that the forest and trail she had on her property next to a river in her home city would remain beyond her lifetime. To make sure they kept their word and her instructions, she worked with a land trust creating a legal document with conservation restrictions, registered on title, to ensure the land would remain as she intended.

In the U.S., land trusts have conserved more than 47 million acres of land.

Today, there are more than 1,723 land trusts in the U.S. and another 400 plus in Canada. The Land Trust Alliance reports in its 2010 census that U.S. land trusts have now conserved more than 47 million acres of land.

There is a growing awareness that human health is directly linked to saving natural areas. Not only do natural areas provide essential clean air and water, they are also a place of great beauty and inspiration, and home to thousands of animals and birds we share this planet with. To get that essential exercise Doctors are now recommending for your own health, you could get outside and hike along a nearby trail or park. And, if you want some ideas of where to go beyond national or local government parks and trails, check out your local land trust’s protected areas.

In Massachusetts, some 20,000 acres of land have been acquired and protected by the Trustees of Reservations, the first land trust in the U.S. They have an additional 20,000 acres of land with conservation restrictions (RE’s) on them, similar to Ruth’s. This non-profit conservation organization was founded in the 1890’s through a young landscape architect practicing in Boston. He proposed that a statewide corporation, governed by a board of voluntary trustees, be able to hold land tax free for the public, “just as a Public Library holds books and an Art Museum holds pictures.”

Today, this large land trust in Massachusetts has more than 200 employees with 120 properties that are protected for their exceptional scenic, historical and ecological values and for public use and enjoyment.

Crane Beach is one of their properties offering more than five miles of trails and fun on the beach for children and people of all ages. It is also a nesting site for piping plovers, a threatened bird hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century for its eggs and feathers.

Crane Beach and Crane Wildlife Refuge and Castle Hill combined include an area of protected salt marsh, coastline and an agricultural and historic “estate” from its previous industrial wealthy owner. It is near Ipswich River leading to the east coast in Massachusetts. The Crane family donated 2100 acres to the Trustees in 1952. Castle Hill came to exemplify the American Country Place Era with its farm and estate buildings, designed grounds and gardens, and diverse natural areas. Originally known for its great fishing by the local Agawam Native Americans, it was one of those properties claimed as early as 1637 by Europeans.

The Crane beach, Wildlife Refuge and Castle Hill are linked by Conservation Restriction (CR) properties. These protected areas are still owned privately, but restrictions have been put on them to protect specific areas or restrict activities, including usually further development. These conservation restrictions are known in other states in the US and provinces in Canada as Conservation Easements, Covenants or Servitudes.

On the west coast, Whatcom Land Trust in Washington often works with farmers and ranchers who own land with specific ecological significance – like the Ladies of the Lake. Gordon Scott, who was the Conservation Director at the land trust, tells us how he helped protect this 100 acre parcel of ranchland that is in the Lake Whatcom watershed, which is the municipal water supply for the town of Bellingham and half the 90,000 people living in Whatcom County, Washington.

“I first met JoAnne and Lucy when I worked for County Planning. They invited me out to their ranch to talk about forestry issues. For about 10 years I had been visiting and chatting with JoAnne and Lucy about the future of their land once they became too old to take care of it any longer. JoAnne just scoffed and waved me off with a flick of her hand every time I raised the subject, but Lucy listened. Both of them kept saying they didn’t know what to do with the property.

I offered them different options, but nothing seemed to stick. I finally asked JoAnne why she wasn’t interested in any of the conservation ideas I had, and she said, “You’re just going to plant trees in the field if we sell you the ranch. We’ve spent our whole lives keeping the field cleared so the cows would have something to eat!” I suddenly realized JoAnne had been reading the paper about all the good work WLT, NSEA and the tribes had been doing restoring salmon streams and rivers, mostly by re-planting trees in riparian areas, and was convinced we would just re-forest the big pasture that she and Lucy had worked so hard to keep clear of alders and blackberries. So, we promised them we wouldn’t plant anything anywhere on their property as long as they were alive. That seemed to break the ice and gave JoAnne and Lucy the confidence to work out a mutually agreeable sale of their property to the Land Trust. It was also a reminder of the hard work and commitment farmers and ranchers in Whatcom County make to their land, and how hard it is to change the ways we live.”

The property was purchased at fair market value with an Annuity and Life Estate set up for the ladies so that they could continue to live there until they died. This innovative method enabled the Whatcom Land Trust to protect the Ladies of the Lake Preserve at the south end of Lake Whatcom and the area’s water supplies while the ladies were alive, giving them a continuing income from the Annuity.

There are tax benefits and financial incentives to help people protect land. Nonetheless, the primary reason people protect places is because they love a piece of land and want to see it protected from human development, or they simply want to protect the wildlife they’ve learned to know and understand depends on the little piece of nature they currently own.

As we humans outnumber all other species worldwide, and our impacts on the planet are increasing daily, supporting and working with land trusts is one way to give back a little of what one may have acquired in a lifetime.