By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
A few years ago the Greater Lovell Land Trust in the Kezar Lakes region of western Maine was considering merging with the local watershed organization
It was an idea that had been around for years and it seemed like an ideal match: preserving land, protecting water. But the land trust folks had questions, about how it all might work, whether other successfulorganizations had similar double-pronged missions. And they knew right where to turn for those answers — the Maine Land Trust Network.
“We asked the Land Trust Network if they knew of organizations doing both watershed protection and land preservation. They did. We went and talked to them,” said Tom Henderson, the GLLT’s executive director. Then they worked with another MLTN staff person, who helped them ask the hard questions and look at possible pitfalls.
Henderson said that process was invaluable and exemplifies the benefits of the Network. “I can make a call to them and in very short order I can get three or four names and numbers and I can explore what I want to explore,” he said.
That type of sharing, that type of connection, is what the Maine Land Trust Network is all about.
The Network is a program of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, one of the state’s oldest and largest land trusts. It is about connecting the state’s more than 90 land trusts through a regular e-newsletter, also known as the Infoline; a web page; education programs; regional meetings; a much respected and well attended annual conference and the listserve, where land trust volunteers or staffers can post questions and find someone out there who has faced just that same issue and can provide guidance or perspective.
It is important work in a state with many land trusts, but where many are small and without full-time staff, and at a time when land trusts face increasing expectations and demands, said Warren Whitney, the Maine Land Trust Network’s program manager.
“What we’re trying to do is help all of those land trusts, of whatever size, be more efficient, understand some of the best practices and become ever stronger, healthier and more effective,” Whitney said.
Maine is a leader in the land trust movement, which really took off in the 1970s and grew steadily through the 1980s and 1990s. The state has about 93 land trusts, depending on how you count them. According to the national Land Trust Alliance, Maine has more land trusts per capita than any other state and they have conserved more land than those in any other state after California.
“At the time the land trust movement started, many states were already fairly developed. Maine has a lot of possible land to conserve. We just have so many natural areas that there’s opportunity and desire in Maine, by summer people and year-round residents, in conserving these special places,” said Whitney.
Maine land trusts own 800,000 acres outright. Small ones might hold a few hundred or few thousand acres. The Nature Conservancy owns 300,000, including the 180,000-acre St. John Forest. Maine Coast Heritage Trust owns 138,000 acres, including one thousand-acre island. In addition to outright ownership, Maine land trusts also hold easements on another 1.9 million acres, with the Forest Society of Maine leading the way with its working forest easements.
According to Land Trust Alliance data there are some 45,000 active volunteers and members in Maine land trusts. Whitney said the typical trust will have somewhere around 500 members.
All land trusts were literally started around the kitchen table. Some still operate from there. A quarter are all volunteer, another quarter have fewer than one full-time staffer, and the other half have one or more full-time paid staff.
Still, those long-time volunteers and staff are a storehouse of information and experience. Sharing it through the Network makes it possible for those who haven’t faced a particular issue to avoid wandering in the dark. It, in effect, turns the state’s land trusts into kind of a superorganism, to use a biological analogy, like a hive of bees or an ant colony, every member contributing to the greater good.
The Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Henderson said that, in addition to seeking information about watershed group-land trust mergers, he once posed a question on the network about how a particular federal grant program worked and whether or not it had too many strings attached. The discussions with a Unity-based land trust that had accessed the same program convinced him to apply for funding. GLLT funded development of its strategic conservation plan from that.
Still, Henderson has not just availed himself of what the Network has to offer, he’s given back to it.
The Lovell land trust owns 14 properties and holds conservation easements on 29.Together they total 4,735 acres. Among those holdings is a lot of working forest, including a 600-acre riverside tract bought from James River Corp. in the 1990s. The trust doesn’t cut timber for money, he said, but as part of a management goal, to make the forest better. It seems logical to him. But, he points out, he’s a forester. And when the GLLT adopted its forest stewardship ethic that included cutting wood, it was partly because he advocated for it.
“But, a lot of land trusts in Maine, surprisingly so, have a level of discomfort with that,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of land trusts that wanted to figure out ‘why do you guys cut trees and how does that impact your constituency and preservation values,’ ” he said.
Henderson said the Network has served as a pivot point to bring innovative pilot projects to Maine, including the Maine Land Trust Excellence Program, that helps land trusts gain accreditation through the Land Trust Alliance’s accreditation program.
“The MLTN has had a strong voice and it has been able to resonate in such a way that outside and inside Maine the network is recognized as a place of good investment, and good investment in pilot projects,” said Henderson.
Carrie Kinne, the executive director of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, based in Bath, said the Maine Excellence Project and the funding it provided were crucial in putting her organization on the road to accreditation. As part of the Maine Land Trust Excellence Program, MLTN organizes participants into a mini-network. They meet regularly and “we really learned from the other organizations’ experiences,” she said. KELT, which works in eight towns and manages over 2,000 acres split between 22 easements and nine properties owned outright, applied for accreditation earlier this year.
The fact that the MLTN’s two staffers, Whitney and program coordinator Donna Bissett, are able to keep their eye on the broader picture is invaluable, since many land trust volunteers and staffers are so involved in the nitty gritty of negotiating land deals and running their organizations. “It’s something a lot of land trusts just don’t have time for,” she said.
Also invaluable is the MLTN listserve, where trusts can post queries. “That’s often where a land trust will go if it has a sticking point, or needs to find resources to get through a complex situation,” Kinne said. “MLTN staff are not land transaction experts. you wouldn’t necessarily go to them for that expertise, but what MLTN does is provide the framework that allows you to communicate with those who are. That’s really the beauty of the thing.”
Almost every week a land trust posts a query about something, said Kinne. Even if she isn’t dealing with that particular issue, she monitors all the posts and frequently saves them for future reference.
All this networking is important because it saves time and money, the two things land trusts don’t have in abundance.
It’s important because, as older land trust volunteers or staffers retire or move on, younger ones taking their place have a built-in mentoring network.
It’s important because land transactions are often frustratingly complex.
And it’s becoming more important as land trusts mature and look to lock in their legacy for the long term.
While Maine has many land trusts, new ones are not cropping up like they used to. Perhaps that’s because much of the state is within an existing trust’s purview. When most trusts started they were focused on protecting a piece of property, whether woodland, lakefront or beachfront or responding to the threat of loss of public access or a recreational opportunity. They still pursue land transactions for those reasons.
These days they’re also working to ensure they’re in it for the long haul: that they have enough money in their stewardship funds, that they’re properly monitoring their conservation easements, that they’re meeting “best standards and practices” as set out by the Land Trust Alliance, and that they’re broadening their base of support beyond those passionate nature lovers who provided the impetus for their creation.
“There is a lot of emphasis right now on community engagement,” said MLTN’s Whitney. He describes a sort of progression for land trusts. From protection and preservation in the face of threats to caring for the property to inviting public access . . . and now, to reaching out to others in their community.
“It’s one thing to conserve a piece of property and build a trail on it and say you’re welcome to come use it, but it’s another thing to go to a community and say, ‘what land do you want conserved,’ ” said Whitney.
Perhaps, when a land trust asks what a community needs, the answer might be more school programs emphasizing nature or acquisition of ocean access because the traditional places have been posted. “It might be a conservation deal that’s tiny in terms of acreage, but hugely important to the community,” said Whitney. For instance, on Deer Isle MCHT helped conserve a water access site with a cobble beach that also had moorings for the island’s fishermen, and then turned the property over to the Town, with overwhelming support at town meeting.
That broader outreach is “difficult to do, hard to measure. But it’s important and it’s the right thing to do for the long term,” Whitney said. “If you only have a small part of the population that believes in an organzation and the work it’s doing it’s going to be pretty tough sledding over the decades.”
The MLTN is also keen on the idea of trusts working with other organizations in their area, perhaps collaborating with the school on a project or working with a hospital to encourage nature walks to combat obesity.
“There are a lot or examples but no cookie-cutter approach,” said Whitney. “It depends on the community and what’s needed and many other things. But the overall sense is that to increase our effectiveness in reaching out, land trusts can’t be just about wilderness or habitat for rare or endangered species or preserving exceptional views, but things important to having a healthy and vibrant community.”
Kinne said KELT is big on collaboration, “so learning from the other land trusts and their experiences and being open to new opportunities has been terrific for us.” And the Network helps provide that.
Which brings us back to the Greater Lovell Land Trust and its exploration of a possible merger with the local watershed organization. The idea had been floating around for some 15 years. It seemed like such a logical thing, what with overlapping geographic responsibility and overlapping memberships, Henderson said.
The big question turned out to be what the watershed wasn’t doing that it should be. While the whole merger idea was being looked at, new leadership took the reins in the watershed group and made serious changes, increasing water quality monitoring and surveying for non-point source pollution, for instance.
And while it turned out there might have been some good reasons for merging, there were some potential downsides as well, including a loss of revenue. After all, what’s going to be the result when two membership lists are combined and a majority of those people are only sending in one check instead of two?
“We benefitted from some direct experience others had had, including what are the risks and potential gains,” said GLLT’s Henderson. “At the end of two years we presented our findings from the interviews and the groups said, ‘things are going fine, why don’t we leave it the way it is.’ ”
Henderson said if the GLLT hadn’t mined the Maine Land Trust Network for contacts “we probably would have merged and probably would have fallen on our face and had to ask for help.”
However, in the end, the process actually led to more collaboration. The land trust now provides office space to the watershed organization and Henderson answers the phones, provides information and answers questions. The watershed folks gets a presence in the village and the land trust gets a quarterly stipend that helps it cover expenses.
Ultimately, he said, the new collaboration means both organizations ended up stronger.
Joe Rankin is a forestry writer, market gardener and beekeeper. He lives in New Sharon.