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Maine's land trusts becoming big players
PRECIOUS PARCEL — This 690-acre parcel owned by Mary and John Watkins of Harrison is the largest easement that the Western Foothills Land Trust has ever received. It protects 1.2 miles of shoreline along Crooked River, and 32.6 acres of high value wetlands.
AREA — Of all the land in the United States that was placed into an environmental land trust over a recent five-year period, a whopping 18 percent is in Maine, according to a new report from the Land Trust Alliance.
Maine has conserved nearly two million acres over the past five years, while the rest of the states combined have conserved about eight million acres.
The news is not a big surprise to Lee Dassler, executive director, Western Foothills Land Trust.
"I think it's primarily a conservation philosophy," said Dassler. "All of the owners we've worked with that have donated easements have wanted, deep down in their hearts, to protect their land. They have a real, deep emotional bond to it and they want to see their stewardship continued."
Dassler has seen the amount of protected land in the area explode over the past several years. In 2005, WFLT managed 820 acres of land.
Today, that number has ballooned to 5,164 acres.
Dassler credits the success to a vibrant community of land trust organizations that has achieved a critical mass of good people that want to protect Maine habitats.
"Maine has one of the most active land trust communities in any of the states," she said. "It really is amazing. ... We have an annual conference in April that draws 400 people. It's really big."
WFLT has had a string of recent successes, including last year's holiday season, when the group closed on eight separate conservation easements between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
During that flurry of activity, one conservation easement from Mary and John Watkins protects 690 acres in Harrison, including 1.2 miles of frontage along the precious Crooked River.
The land represents the largest single-ownership parcel in Harrison, suggesting that WFLT will be an increasingly big player in the local community.
The reason for the pattern of growth is that WFLT, like many land trusts, are now better-positioned to help people carry out their good intentions.
"We have part-time staff now," said Dassler. "We have people who can answer the phones and get out there and talk to people."
According to the study, Maine now has 99 land trusts, most of which have paid staff. In all, there were 433 paid positions at land trusts in 2010.
Maine now ranks second in the nation in terms of total acres conserved over the study period. The first in the nation is California, with 2.3 million acres conserved.
Dassler said that the function of a land trust is also changing with the times. When she started working with WFLT in 1993, "it was very quiet work," she said. "It was just listening to landowners."
Over the past two decades, that has changed.
"Now, we're asked to be advocates, and we're looked to as advocates," she said. "People call us up to tell us about concerns they have, and they ask us for advice on what to do. That's a very different role than what we were created to be."
Of course, there is still much work to be done, and many challenges face the land trust community, said Dassler. On the one hand, much more land needs to be conserved to effectively help wildlife to deal with a shifting climate. On the other hand, WFLT is hard-pressed to manage the land that it currently oversees.
Within the greater Oxford Hills area, WFLT is managing 425.9 square miles in 10 towns. As a percentage of the total land in the area, it's a measly 1.9 percent.
But for an organization that relies on a handful of core volunteers and a skeleton staff, it's a challenge to meet all of the monitoring requirements that come with acting as stewards.
"For the current levels of staff and volunteers we have, it's getting to be a lot of land to manage," said Dassler, who indicated that the organization will soon have to consider expanding its infrastructure.
But backing away from conserving as much land as possible is not an option.
Dassler said that every acre will be needed to provide habitat options to animals and plant species that are forced to cope with a shifting climate.
"We're realizing that we have to adapt to climate change. Whatever the source of climate change is, it's happening," said Dassler. "We need to provide the animals with as many different kinds of habitat as we can. We don't know where the animals and the plants are going to need to move, but they're going to need to move."
Dassler said that the broader land trust community is trying to meet the challenge by diversifying the portfolio of protected land, to provide highlands, lowlands, wetlands and open areas.
WFLT even helped to create a conservation easement for a golf course on Paris Hill, in part because the open land is an ideal habitat for certain species.
"You may have protected 100 acres that's perfect deer wintering habitat," said Dassler, "and it may not be perfect in 50 years. You need to protect other kinds of lands as well."
As conservation easements become more common in the area, Dassler hopes that they will be demystified for landowners who are thinking of using one to protect their land.
"One misconception is that you have to maintain a public egress," said Dassler. "That is not true. You still own your land. You don't have to allow the public on your land any more than you do now."
Dassler also hopes that the role land trusts play in protecting critical habitat will encourage more people to help the organization, by volunteering, becoming a member, or considering conservation easements themselves.
By being proactive in protecting land now, Dassler said that the area could reap significant benefits for future generations.
"Wherever there's not open land protected, there's going to be more stress on the system. But easements are permanent. That's why a conservation easement is such a great tool. Once it's in place, it's there for perpetuity."