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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The Botham property, managed by The Nature Conservancy as part of the Barneveld Prairie.The entire 40,000-acre project maintains vital grassland and prairie habitat. © Gerald Emmerich, Jr.
The Botham property, managed by The Nature Conservancy as part of the Barneveld Prairie. The entire 40,000-acre project maintains vital grassland and prairie habitat.
© Gerald Emmerich, Jr.

December 2004

The perfect partner

Wisconsin's land trusts connect the conservation goals of individuals with the landscape at large.

Althea Dotzour

Take action | Healing the land
The Stewardship Fund: Partnerships on a grand scale

On a crisp winter morning, wild turkeys forage in a meadow. A spring bubbles past icy rocks, feeding clean water to the river. The future is bright on this landscape: with the help of a local land trust, the family that has owned the land for generations has protected it with a conservation easement.

Across the state, people who value the outdoors are turning to land trusts to protect special places where future generations can enjoy the natural areas that make Wisconsin such a wonderful place to live. "Land trusts are the fastest growing segment of the conservation community," says Vicki Elkin, executive director of Gathering Waters Conservancy. A statewide coalition, Gathering Waters works with its member land trusts and conservation-minded landowners to save our lakes and rivers, wildlife habitat, scenic areas, working farms and other vulnerable areas from development.

"In the ten years since Gathering Waters was founded, we have seen Wisconsin's land trusts grow from a handful of groups to over 50," Elkin notes. "Together, these organizations and their more than 40,000 members have protected over 125,000 acres of special land."

Land trusts are private, nonprofit conservation organizations formed to protect natural resources such as working farms and forest land, lakes and rivers, natural areas, historic structures and recreational areas. Land trusts purchase property, accept land donations and negotiate land preservation agreements (called conservation easements) with property owners. They educate the public about the need to conserve land, and some provide land use and estate planning services to local governments and individual citizens.

Because they often are locally based, land trusts tend to enjoy a close connection with the landowners with whom they work. "Local land trusts work to protect land important to their communities – hiking and ski trails, lakes and beaches, favorite fishing spots, scenic views," says Elkin. "I believe that in the future, land trusts will be integral community fixtures, like the local YMCA or library. Our goal is to ensure landowners are as familiar with their ability to preserve their land as they are aware of their option to sell it for development. Unless we act now, the places we love may be lost before our children and grandchildren can enjoy them."

Land trusts work with private land owners to safeguard fragile ecological resources, but they also increasingly partner with government, other community organizations, and businesses to protect valuable outdoor resources and to provide a variety of recreational opportunities to the people who live, work and play in Wisconsin communities. Much of the property land trusts protect is open to hiking, hunting and fishing, bird watching and educational tours.

In areas of high ecological significance, land trusts complement the efforts of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources by working with landowners who are not interested in selling their land to a government agency. "The conservation goals are the same," explains Elkin. "A strong land trust community is an excellent partner to the Department of Natural Resources. We're also able to leverage private, local and federal dollars to build a legacy of lands in the state."

Governor Jim Doyle has proclaimed 2005 The Year of Land Conservation in Wisconsin. "This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the strides that have been made by public and private groups working to promote land conservation," says Elkin. "2005 is also the 15th anniversary of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund so it is a particularly fitting time to highlight state and local land conservation efforts."

In anticipation of The Year of Land Conservation, here are a few snapshots of some spectacular land trust projects across the state:

Door County Land Trust: Setting a standard for excellence
The winner of Gathering Waters Conservancy's 2004 Land Trust of the Year award, the Door County Land Trust, exemplifies a land trust serving as an enduring institution in the community. When driving through the Door County peninsula, you will see signs on areas the trust has protected – over 3,000 acres to date. The Door County Land Trust is working in close partnership with the DNR, The Nature Conservancy, and The Ridges Sanctuary to develop and implement a county-wide land conservation strategy. Like many land trusts, the DCLT owns and manages property and continues working with private landowners to place conservation easements (permanent development restrictions) on areas of high ecological or scenic importance.

Bayfield Regional Conservancy: Protecting the orchard industry in northern Wisconsin
Toward the northern tip of Wisconsin, a peninsula of land juts out into Lake Superior. The microclimate on the Bayfield peninsula is perfect for orchards, and apple and cherry farming thrive in the region. The orchard industry is emblematic of the area, and Bayfield Regional Conservancy works hand-in-hand with local governments and citizens to ensure orchards will continue to be a part of this community in the future. For example, in 2002,with the help of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy, the local community voted to raise their own taxes to buy easements on active farmland.

The Nature Conservancy: Leading land conservation
The Nature Conservancy, an international organization, has protected 85,300 acres of critical natural lands in Wisconsin. The Conservancy has undertaken regional conservation site assessments and has acquired especially rare or fragile properties such as Baxter's Hollow in the Baraboo Hills, Lulu Lake in the Mukwonago River watershed, and Caroline Lake in the Chequamegon Bay watershed.

Mississippi Valley Conservancy: Enhancing the bluffs of the Mississippi River
In a unique partnership with the city of La Crosse, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy is protecting the bluffs surrounding and overlooking the community. In addition, the Conservancy recently worked with a private landowner to protect over 330 acres in Grant County, including a bird effigy mound with a wingspan of 270 feet. This beautiful site, rich in species diversity, is a favorite hot spot for birders. Through partnerships with the Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Foundation, this site has been designated a State Natural Area. The Mississippi Valley Conservancy continues to protect blufflands in six southwest counties bordering the Mississippi River.

Kinnickinnic River Land Trust: Developing innovative partnerships
The Kinnickinnic River Land Trust is both a land trust and a river advocacy group. The trust won the River Alliance of Wisconsin's 2003 award for their work protecting the Kinni. The Kinnickinnic River Land Trust has brought together a diverse group – including the Department of Natural Resources, the City of River Falls, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and local counties – to maintain the Kinnickinnic as a valuable recreation resource that attracts many anglers to the region.

Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Partner Group: Protecting a wide area of habitat
A diverse set of organizations work with landowners to protect over 40,000 acres of prairie, savanna and grassland in Dane and Iowa counties as well as sustain farmland. The Partner Group includes conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy, the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, Blue Mounds Area Project and The Prairie Enthusiasts; government agencies including the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and economic development groups like the Southwest Badger Resource Conservation & Development Council. Almost 39,000 of the 40,000 acres are owned by individuals who are helping provide a safe zone for grassland species by keeping their land in pasture, hay, or fallow fields.

Caledonia Conservancy: Preserving rural character
In 1994, Caledonia Conservancy was started by equestrians interested in connecting the trails in the area. Since that time, Caledonia Conservancy has grown and expanded both its reach and its mission; today the group also aims to preserve the town's rural character and protect a maple-beech woods where townspeople enjoy hiking. The conservancy has become a strong voice in the community for smart growth planning and has helped the Town of Caledonia create an innovative Conservation Subdivision Ordinance, which requires new developments to contain up to 60 percent open space.

Take action

If these images of groups working together to protect the natural wonders of Wisconsin have inspired you, consider contacting Gathering Waters Conservancy. From volunteering at stewardship days to protecting your family's land, you can get involved to ensure the places that make Wisconsin special are protected for the future. Contact Gathering Waters Conservancy or call (608) 251-9131. The Conservancy can put you in touch with groups in your area that mesh with your interests.

Althea Dotzour is Outreach and Policy Coordinator for Gathering Waters Conservancy in Madison.

Healing the land
My first professional job, at the age of 24, was District Game Manager at Viroqua. I quickly fell in love with the coulee country. The river valleys, steep wooded slopes and the vast prairie-like uplands made up a beautiful landscape completely new and exciting to me. I hoped I would someday own a small piece of this magnificent region.

Some 18 years later our family achieved that goal. We acquired a badly abused farm and began the long process of rehabilitation, tackling the incredible mess with plenty of hard work and effort from family members young and old. Now – 35 years later – the land is slowly regaining its health. One-third of the 220 acres have naturally reverted to forest, ponds have been built, erosion controlled and new prairies grow on what were once badly eroded crop fields.

Our aim was to protect the land in perpetuity – to protect it from resource exploitation and more importantly, the pernicious escalation in land values which, in the decades ahead, could result in enormous pressures to sub-divide. A conservation easement accomplishes these goals admirably and yet permits the family to build several small cabins around the old farmstead. If forestry is practiced, big trees will be the goal along with maintenance of forest openings and shrub borders so important to wildlife. Forest and soil plans are required. Moreover, the easement allows future owners to adopt a "hands-off" approach. The land will evolve and change through natural forces.

The land gives back to us rich rewards – tranquility, an evolving forest/prairie ecosystem, diversity in plants and animals, and great satisfaction in witnessing the incredible changes as the land slowly heals.

– Bud Jordahl
Founder and past-president of Gathering Waters Conservancy

From "In Their Own Words," a Gathering Waters Conservancy publication featuring stories of land conservation from people who chose to protect land in Wisconsin for future generations. Order a copy at Gathering Waters Conservancy or call (608) 251-9131.
The Stewardship Fund: Partnerships on a grand scale
In 1989 the Wisconsin State Legislature created the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund to protect recreational lands, wildlife habitat, state parks, trails, forests and other natural areas. Named after two of Wisconsin's great conservationist governors, Republican Warren Knowles and Democrat Gaylord Nelson, the Stewardship Fund has helped protect more than 225,000 acres in 71 of Wisconsin's 72 counties. The program is funded at $60 million a year through the year 2010.

In addition to funding land purchases by the state, the Stewardship Fund provides grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations to acquire conservation land. To receive a grant, communities and nonprofit groups must raise a matching amount of money, effectively doubling the funds available for land and water conservation.

To date, Wisconsin's private land trusts have raised more than $30 million from private and public sources to directly match the state's investment. At the same time they have leveraged an additional $90 million of conservation through donations of land and conservation easements from landowners. Here are two examples of how land trusts have used Stewardship grants to leverage big bucks for conservation:

Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and the Lion's Den Gorge Natural Area
  • Site: Lion's Den Gorge State Natural Area. Identified both by the Department of Natural Resources and by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) as a high-priority site for protection.

  • Action: The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust purchased the site, protecting 75 acres and one-half mile of Lake Michigan shoreline for $1,280,000.

  • Funding: A $450,000 Stewardship grant, matched in part by $26,000 from private donors and leveraging an additional $404,000 from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, $300,000 from Ozaukee County and $100,000 from the Town of Grafton.

The Nature Conservancy and the Spring Green Preserve
  • Site: 120 acres of high quality oak woodland and dry prairie at the Spring Green Preserve State Natural Area in Sauk County.

  • Action: The Nature Conservancy purchased the property in a bargain sale to protect this rare habiat type and the grassland birds that live there.

  • Funding: A $151,000 Stewardship grant was matched by the landowner's gift of $100,000 in land value and by additional donations from private individuals.