For the Conservation Curious

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Sustainability Makes Sense for All March 12, 2014

Sometimes I am amazed by how controversial a seemingly harmless word can be to certain people. I understand why some people don’t like the terms “climate change” and “global warming” – they have become highly politicized and the actual events behind the terminology threatened people’s comfortable way of life. Even I have become annoyed by the abuse and misuse of those terms in the media. But I cannot fathom why the term “sustainability” has such a negative connotation in various quarters of the population. Lately I have had to defend the importance of this term, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

I first came across the negative perception of sustainability in reference to the Agenda 21 movement. Agenda 21 is itself a non-binding, voluntary action plan of the United Nations in regard to sustainable development. However, groups of right-wing and libertarian organizations have used Agenda 21 as an example of the UN’s desire to take over the world. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution opposing Agenda 21 and their party has stated that “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.” Numerous states have passed (or are drafting) legislation barring government participation in the Agenda. The Tea Party calls Agenda 21 a conspiracy by the UN to deprive people of their property rights.

That’s a lot to put on the imaginary shoulders of a non-binding, voluntary document!

I have only read portions of Agenda 21 so I’m not going to defend the document here. What I will do is discuss why even if someone is opposed to the tenets of that document they can and should support sustainability. A compilation of the definitions for “sustainable” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary equate to something that can be used now but still be around for future generations to enjoy. When we practice sustainability we are ensuring that our future generations are not harmed by our actions of today. To me, that seems like a non-partisan ideal.

Through my job I promote sustainable landscape design and management for anyone who deals with land – municipalities, schools, homeowners, business owners, etc. The goal of the program is to show people how they can save money and improve human health and quality of life by rethinking how they deal with the natural world. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate saving money. And you don’t have to be a doctor to appreciate better health. Anyone can find benefits from sustainability.

I do believe that there is a limit to growth. If we sacrifice the environment and natural resources for ever-increasing economic growth we will reach a point where it all crashes. I don’t believe anyone would want that or have something to gain from it. So if we start to incorporate sustainability into our daily lives we can continue to have enjoyable experiences without dooming future generations. And in the end we may even save some money to put toward things we’ll really enjoy (like vacations and better benefits for employees) while enhancing the aesthetics of our communities.

So when you think of the term sustainability, think of a town where kids walk to school, getting enough exercise to cut the obesity rate dramatically: a town where small businesses thrive, where tree-lined streets clean our air and shade us during the hot summers. A sustainable community is one that will survive the ups and downs of the market, find new ways to compete in the global marketplace and attract new residents because of its desirable homes and businesses. Sounds like a place I’d like to live in!

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Conservation Easements Make Dollars and Sense March 6, 2014

What happens if you own a beautiful, pristine piece of land on the fringe of a city and can no longer afford to keep it? The developers come knocking on your door, looking to turn your 100 acres of woods and meadows into 10, 10-acre home plots. You sign the dotted line, hand over the deed and in come the bulldozers and other heavy machinery, ready to cut down many, if not all, trees and grade the land so it’s as flat as a table top. Once that happens, it’s too late to bring back the habitat.

However, there is another alternative for landowners who want to protect their land but make money off it in the process. It’s called a conservation easement. A conservation easement, as defined by the Land Trust Alliance, is “a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs.”

Yes, that’s right – the landowner still owns the land and can continue to live on it – but certain rights are removed, such as development rights. A land trust may approach a landowner or vice versa. The land trust pays a reduced price to the landowner to place the conservation easement on the property. The easement remains on the land in perpetuity – i.e. forever. The easement will contain detailed information about what can and can’t take place on the property. Usually the construction of additional buildings is restricted and there are management guidelines for how to make sure the habitat stays healthy. The land trust is in charge of at least yearly monitoring visits to make sure the landowner isn’t violating the easement. If a violation is found, they will work with the landowner to correct the violation or take them to court as a last resort.

Conservation easements can be very flexible though, so major violations that require legal action are not an everyday occurrence. They are very beneficial to the landowner because easements can provide tax deductions and drastically reduce estate taxes when the land is passed on to the next generation. The land trusts benefit by knowing that they are protecting land from being developed. The environment benefits because good habitat remains as-is, particularly in areas of high development pressure, where conservation easements make the most sense. It’s a win-win-win situation.

If you are a landowner considering a conservation easement on your property, where do you begin? Locate your nearest land trust or conservancy and talk to them about it. They will probably want to visit your property to see if it meets their criteria. Your state conservation agency may also be able to assist in connecting you to the right people. Check out the Land Trust Alliance website at www.landtrustalliance.org.