Local Land Trusts Flex New Muscle

Nonprofit alliances of private citizens are increasingly stepping in to block development. CONSERVATION: SAVING OPEN SPACE

IN 1985, Dutchess County was still a partly rural block of New York State, just two hours north of Manhattan. Land prices were rising, population was growing, and suburbs were reaching out from the Hudson River. Then two large farms went up for sale.

You might think you can guess what Dutchess County looks like now. But if you guess that the farmland has been divided into subdevelopments, guess again.

Local citizens took advantage of an increasingly popular conservation tool to preserve the green hills of their county. They formed a land trust - a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open space.

The Dutchess County trust bought the farms and restricted their use with permanent conservation easements. Since 1985 the trust has protected 3,500 acres of county farmland and forest.

As the growth of roads, suburbs, and shopping malls has increasingly swallowed natural areas, local land trusts have become one of the fastest-growing conservation movements in the United States. Almost half the nation's 743 land trusts were formed in the last decade, nearly a third in the last five years, according to the Land Trust Exchange in Alexandria, Va.

Some 640,000 people in 45 states belong to local land trusts, over half of which are run entirely by volunteers. Together, local trusts have been responsible for protecting 1.9 million acres of wildlife habitat, scenic view, farmland, and historic areas.

The concept dates back to the mid-1850s, when New England communities formed ``village improvement societies,'' to set aside local land for public enjoyment. Today, most land trusts still spring up as the Dutchess County group did - to save a piece of land close to home.

``I think people are angry at what they see happening to their communities, the changing character,'' says Jean Hocker, executive director of the Land Trust Exchange, an organization of local trusts.

``They see land they thought would be open space - whether a farm or a woodlot they used to play in as kids - turned into shopping centers. They see a problem and they're looking for a solution.''

National conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy focus on habitats important to biological diversity. State and national parks focus on tracts important to a wide region.

But local land trusts act to preserve smaller treasures, places important to the character of their locale.

The Dutchess County trust hopes to preserve high-quality agricultural land and a historic farming community. ``By working with farmers who want to stay on their land, we hope to continue those populations as a viable, indigenous culture,'' says Glenn Hoagland, executive director of the Dutchess County trust, which leased much of its farmland at low cost back to farm families.

Other local land trusts have saved forests in New Hampshire, prairies in Nebraska, hiking trails in the Appalachians, part of Big Sur on the coast of California, islands off the coast of Rhode Island, and an eagle nesting ground in Florida.

Land trusts work through a combination of free-market and legal techniques. Most buy outright or receive as a donation the land they want to protect.

In some cases they later resell the land to parks or conservation agencies. In other cases they protect land with conservation easements - permanent, voluntary, legal restrictions on the amount of development allowed.

The land can then be returned to the open market, available for limited development that will not harm its scenic or natural character.

Their local base gives land trusts several unique strengths. Local trusts move quickly, with little red tape, and can sometimes get land at a better price than larger organizations can.

``Local land trusts are a network of people who can talk to landowners, because they are their friends and neighbors,'' says Robert L. Bendick Jr., director of environmental management in the state of Rhode Island, which has 10 local trusts.

Even if the state is the ultimate owner, ``a lot of times it's better to have local people negotiate for the land,'' he says.

``People like the local feel, that people they know are doing it,'' says Ms. Hocker of the Land Trust Exchange. ``They are expecting less from government, and are saying, `We'd better do it ourselves.'''

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