It’s not always better to do something rather than nothing at all – or at least that’s what proponents of land conservation are trying to teach businesses, government officials and the general public.
It can be a hard concept for some people to understand. But doing nothing to particular plots of land rather than developing them can sometimes save millions, if not billions, of dollars from being spent later on habitat restoration. And many plots of natural land are not just saving money, they are generating dollars.
“It’s easier for us to perceive value out of things we sell or do,” said Eric Erler, executive director of Capital Land Trust. “We are all responsible for the precarious state of the natural environment. Every square inch of land has a function.”
Groups like Capital Land Trust work with landowners who want to conserve, often in an effort to maintain an important function of their property or the overall environmental health of the area.
Examples can be seen around the South Sound. Land owners have signed easements to guarantee their properties will continue to provide things like clean water to the Puget Sound or a safe haven to an endangered species.
And while these deals generally do bode well for Mother Nature, land conservation is not just feel-good environmental work. Many businesses depend on the health of the South Sound’s natural environment, especially Puget Sound, for their success.
Erler and other specialists can cite why land conservation is needed in specific cases, but for those folks who are more interested in numbers, a report from Earth Economics shows that the natural systems of the Puget Sound Basin could be valued between $300 billion and $2.6 trillion.
“Valuing the Puget Sound Basin: Revealing Our Best Investments” shows that nature as an economic asset delivers a flow of benefits between $9.7 billion and $83 billion in economic value every year.
The goods and services provided include drinking water production, storage and filtration, flood protection, pharmaceuticals, food, building materials, recreation, waste treatment, climate stability, habitat, biodiversity, nutrient cycling and aesthetic value.
Capital Land Trust has conserved about 55 properties in Thurston, Mason, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties. But Erler said it’s the educational side of the business that is challenging.
“What we do is extremely complex,” he said. “It doesn’t lend itself to a sound bite.”
When a business or property owner signs a land conservation contract, they are generally promising that nothing will ever change as far as how that land is maintained. That differs substantially from a company or group promising to “fix” a piece of land.
“It is much more efficient to identify (lands) and conserve them in that state,” said Erler, adding that being reactive rather than proactive can be costly.
Erler said an example of people responding too late can be seen at Chesapeake Bay, where money continues to be spent to restore habitat and water quality.
Land use is often a divisive issue, but Erler said part of Capital Land Trust’s strategy is to work in collaboration with all interested parties, whether they be shellfish companies, the state Department of Ecology, endangered species groups, large farming corporations or a private land owner.
“Collaboration across the various sectors is the only conceivable way we can all manage the great gift we have in front of us which is the natural resources,” said Mike Mosman, senior vice president of land and resources at Port Blakely Tree Farms. “Land trusts provide that central brokerage for making the whole thing work.”
Port Blakely Tree Farms is a family business that actively participates in conservation.
“If we were to manage with a short-term view we wouldn’t last very long,” he said. “We are far better off to address the resource needs with responsibility so that among other things it makes sense and our social license to operate continues.”
Forever and ever
Perhaps one of the most intimidating factors for people considering a land conservation agreement is that there is no expiration date. The contracts last forever.
Charlene and Tom Wynne of Wynne Farm said it’s nice not to worry about what will happen to their land when they are no longer in control of it. But the couple admits the three-year process was a “huge undertaking.”
Wynne Farm will celebrate its 100th anniversary during 2016 and Tom said the easement on the property has not affected using the property as a working agricultural and timberland farm.
Even though the Gordon family’s dairy farm has been a long time haven for trumpeter swans, when owner Jay Gordon was approached to conserve about 55 acres for the species, he was hesitant.
Gordon’s family has owned the farm for 140 years and he said this type of easement made him feel like in some ways he would be adding another partner to the farm – or at least part of it.
However, Gordon worked with Capital Land Trust, a local trumpeter swan group and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to reach an agreeable land easement contract.
“Part of it was a business decision, part was an ethics decision and part was it didn’t really take any skin off our backs,” he said.
While some property owners do not receive any financial consideration for conserving their land, Gordon was paid for what his property lost in its estimated sale value and he used the money to help pay for construction of a new barn.
Because Gordon Dairy and Wynne Farm are operating businesses, it was important to both owners that the land easements not interfere with their livelihoods.
Erler said whenever a contract is being negotiated, the trust tries to determine what the owner’s goals are for the property.
Typically there is room in a contract for landowners to set their own rules. For example, some like to leave some breathing room for new houses to be built. Others like to prohibit any new building.
“When we conserve a place we do it in a number of ways,” Erler said. “It’s all (about) what’s appropriate for the land.”
– Breanne Coats
Originally published August 23, 2010