Q&A: What happens after land is conserved?
4 min read / October 20, 2022
4 min read / October 20, 2022
Conserving a farm or forest can take a year or two, sometimes more, but our work doesn’t end there. After land is conserved, we continue to work with landowners. This is our long-term commitment to the land and to future generations. We asked Cara Montgomery, our stewardship director, to tell us more.
Cara: When land is conserved with a conservation easement, we have a legal obligation to ensure the terms of the conservation easement are respected. To do this, we check on each conserved property every year. We call this ongoing work ‘stewardship.’
But stewardship doesn’t just mean ensuring easements are upheld. Stewardship means to be in service to the land and to our landowners. Every year, we reach out to landowners. We connect people with technical assistance and support them with land management questions.
Cara: Like most land trusts in their infancy, in the beginning we were just trying to figure out how to conserve land. Since then, we’ve grown to recognize that some of the best work we can do is after conservation: building relationships with our landowners and communities, learning how we can be in service, and supporting their land management goals.
We’ve also taken stewardship to the next level, to protect the land further. For example, sometimes we strengthen older easements by adding new protections to support cleaner water. Or we restore a wetland or plant trees along a river. It’s an exciting time because there are some funds available to do this work. In the past there were only funds for new conservation.
We’ve also brought stewardship thinking to our new conservation work. When you bring ongoing land stewardship to the forefront of a new project, you’re thinking more holistically about what would be good for that property or that farm into the future.
And, we’re always learning new ways to support the people who work the land and who are so integral in land conservation. From years of experience, we know that this support is just as important as protecting natural resources because it is farmers and woodlot managers who keep these lands viable.
Cara: There are a lot of farms transitioning and we try to facilitate good outcomes. A common scenario is that of a farmer with conserved land who’s about to retire. He or she may approach us to sell their land to a neighboring farmer. To facilitate the sale financially we may look for an opportunity to fund additional conservation protections on the farm. If we can do this, the funding can help lower the price for the new owner.
Clean water is another area where we see this happening. It’s a priority for Vermont. New conservation measures can alter farming practices along rivers or result in woodland returning to riverbanks. We can have a win for clean water and provide a financial incentive that helps landowners make changes. We work with a lot of partners for the best outcome in the long term for the land, for clean water, and for the people working these lands. Fifteen to twenty years ago, this wasn’t as much of an option.
Cara: We’re really solution oriented and always trying to problem-solve with our landowners. But conservation easements are forever, and an easement we did 20+ years ago could have some language that may not translate well to today. That’s a challenging part of this work.
The most rewarding is easy – it’s the relationships that we’ve built with our landowners, the outcomes we’ve worked on together, and just being able to bear witness to their good land stewardship. Yes, we steward the easements, but the most important thing is the whole picture; if we haven’t supported the people working these lands, we haven’t done a good job at land conservation.
The more nimble we can be to the needs of conserved lands and the people who manage them, the better the outcomes. Moving forward with humility, being flexible, seeing what’s needed, being in service, finding a way to change things for the better – that’s what will bring us success.
To be in service means bringing more to the table than just restricting the property. It includes restoration, securing technical assistance, or finding new ways to further enhance already conserved land, and supporting working lands – these are our goals. The goals aren’t new to VLT, but we have a lot more tools now to meet them and that’s exciting.