Private land conservation in U. S. soars

Land trusts double the acres under protection

As communities in northern Illinois and across America grapple with how to deal with development that is eating up 2 million acres a year, thousands of quiet success stories lie behind the 1,500 land trusts that are successfully conserving farmland, forests, wetlands and scenic vistas. The Natural Land Institute of Rockford is among the regional, nonprofit land conservation groups that have doubled the acres protected just five years ago and are now protecting more than 800,000 new acres each year. Typically, land trusts either buy land outright or work out private, voluntary land agreements that limit future development.

One of the first land trusts in Illinois, the Natural Land Institute was formed in 1958 to preserve and protect natural areas for future generations. The Natural Land Institute has protected about 12,000 acres of the best prairies, forest and wetlands in northern Illinois, according to the group’s Executive Director, Jerry Paulson.

Paulson said: “The mission of land trusts is not just to save land, but to protect the traditional lifestyles of a community, a way of life that remains connected to that land. This can mean saving the family farm, protecting the blufflands along our rivers or conserving wetlands to protect water quality.”

Paulson attributes the success of land trusts to their grassroots nature and their entrepreneurial spirit. “These groups—many of them that depend on volunteers—represent the best of community spirit in America, bringing people together to protect a piece of land that, for them, helps define what makes their community unique.” Paulson stressed that land trusts work solely through voluntary private transactions, often fulfilling a landowner’s wish to keep their land as it is for their children and future generations.

“In October, the Natural Land Institute was able to protect 112 acres of land with a mile of frontage on the Rock River west of Rockton, Illinois,” Paulson said. “A donation from J. Norman Jensen, who died in 2002, enabled us to purchase the land to protect wildlife and to provide a place for people to fish, hike and enjoy the beauty of nature. We turned over the property to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District and named it in Mr. Jensen’s honor.”

Despite this progress, Paulson and his land trust colleagues cite cause for alarm. “The current rate of development essentially means that we have 20 years or less to protect our most cherished landscapes before they are lost forever,” said Paulson. “Private land trusts are our last best hope, particularly now that deficits will severely limit the ability of state and local government to conserve new lands. Land trusts are vitally needed to do this work.”

The Natural Land Institute is a member of the Land Trust Alliance, a national association representing land trusts since 1982. On Nov. 18, the Alliance released its census of progress made during the last five years. The nation’s local and regional land trusts have conserved more than 9 million acres as of Dec. 31, 2003, double the acreage protected just five years ago, and creating an “everlasting legacy on the land,” according to the Land Trust Alliance’s President Rand Wentworth. Indicating their growing popularity at the local level, new land trusts are being formed a the rate of two per week, with the fastest-growing region being the West.

The National Land Trust Census, the nation’s only tabulation of the achievements of the private, voluntary land conservation movement, describes how people in their own communities are helping to safeguard water quality, preserve working farms and ranches, and protect wildlife habitat and other natural areas. The Land Trust Alliance’s Census identified the following milestones:

Local and regional land trusts have now protected 9,361,600 acres of natural areas, an area four times the size of Yellowstone National Park. This is double the 4.7 million acres protected as of 1998. Although this census tallies data only from local and regional land trusts, national land trusts have protected an additional 25 million acres.

A record 5 million acres were protected through voluntary land conservation agreements, more than triple the amount protected just five years ago.

A record 1,526 local and regional land trusts were in operation in 2003, a 26 percent increase over the number (1,213) that existed in 1998.

Wentworth said, “We are doubling the pace of conservation and we are doing it in a voluntary way that respects private property and is supported by local communities. Land trusts are the vanguard of land conservation in the 21st century.”

Additional information about the National Land Trust Census, along with a state-by-state summary of acres protected, is available on the Land Trust Alliance web site, The Land Trust Alliance is headquartered in Washington, D.C., with regional offices. Information about the Natural Land Institute in Rockford, Ill., is available at or by calling 815-964-6666.

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