Public Use of Conservation Land
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. John Muir
This is a follow up blog regarding how STPAL balances our sometimes competing missions of land conservation, public use parks, and organizational viability.
It is intentional that in our name the word Parks comes before Land. We were founded in order to create public parks. It is our first priority. So why do we also function as a conservation land trust?
First, we want our efforts to have permanence. Having our land permanently conserved via deed restriction makes the lands’ natural state also permanent. It gives us hope that our parks will remain in use forever. This is a powerful and highly motivating concept.
Second, our land donors and financial supporters like to know that their gifts will have long lasting impact. Having the land conserved provides that surety.
Third, having the land permanently conserved makes it exempt from property taxes. Although I still spend significant and usually aggravating time dealing with some counties as they slowly realize that they can’t tax us.
And finally, the conservation deed restrictions force us and future STPAL Boards and Staff to adhere to our vision of permanent public parks with significant natural areas. We recognize that there may come a time when STPAL could face a crisis or simply stray from its mission. By permanently conserving the land now we prevent the land from being changed, harmed or even developed in the future. But even today we appreciate that we are forced to keep our conservation land in its natural state. It simplifies our planning and decision making.
Our current 17 properties are all 100% conserved with just one exception. We can build natural surface trails and parking areas. We can install low impact and minimal signage. We can build natural unplumbed restrooms (google: moldering privy or composting toilet). We can put in disc golf courses. We can install educational and science research components. We can plant native species and remove invasive plants. We can possibly build pavilions, canoe/kayak launches, boardwalks, shooting/archery ranges, and other simple low impact structures. We can consider permitting mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, birdwatching, very limited hunting, limited fishing, limited camping and other activities as long as they do not harm the conservation values of the land. Conservation values examples include water quality and flood control; plant and wildlife habitat protection; and protection of scenic views. Some of the typical park amenities that can’t be built on conservation land are soccer/baseball/softball and other organized sports fields, playgrounds, ATV areas, and other high impact uses. We also are mandated to provide the public use at no or very low cost for participants. This will prevent our parks from ever requiring payment for usage.
In summary, parks on conservation land have a theme of Quiet Enjoyment of Nature.
This is a little additional insight into STPAL’s balancing act. There is more to follow in coming blogs
2014 Membership Drive
The Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land, Inc. is a 501-C-3 public charity organized for the purpose of preserving and protecting land, waterways, and wildlife habitat while providing public access and benefit. Since forming a short 31 months ago we have been able to acquire fee simple ownership of approximately 3,000 acres of land in Georgia and North Carolina which we have permanently conserved through deed restriction. All but one of these properties were donated to us. We were able to purchase one property using funds raised by a group of neighbors that wanted to protect a specific natural area near their homes.
While our primary task is monitoring and protecting the conservation value of the properties we are also using these lands to provide public benefit and access. We are committed to making these properties available for science education and passive recreation. Passive recreation includes such activities as hiking, photography, nature observation, and quiet enjoyment.
In order to build public awareness and support for STPAL’s work we are engaging in our first annual membership drive. Our goal is to have 250 supporting members with a cumulative donated amount of $7500 by the end of 2014. The funds raised will be used to purchase permanent signage for each of our current nine properties. The minimum annual donation to be a Supporting Member is $20. As a supporting member you’ll receive our newsletter and invitations to events, but you won’t have oversight responsibility or liability. We hope that you will consider becoming an inaugural Supporting Member!
STPAL is now in the toddler stage or is it the terrible Twos? We’ve gone from an idea just a short 30 months ago to owning 3,000 acres of conservation land spread from southeast Georgia to northwest North Carolina. Like most two year olds we’ve fallen down here and there but we’ve learned how to walk. And so we walk. And occasionally we run a bit. But we want to dance and that takes partners. It takes two to tango!
We have the land. It is conserved and we are charged with protecting and enhancing its conservation value. We are doing fine with that. We’ve made a few new trails. We improved the habitat diversity in a few places. We’ve taking steps to prevent poaching and other improper uses. But these things are just walking. We want to dance and we need partners.
We want to partner with at least one educational institution for each property. We have called and emailed many public high schools but can’t seem to get a response. We had multiple meetings with a University but a shift in their personnel left us back at square one. We need help making connections at schools. We have no preconceived limits or requirements. We are open to considering any usage of our properties that advances science education and research without harming the land.
We are interested in habitat development and support. Development has shrunk the open land available for many species. We need help finding methods and funding for our properties to reach their potential as nature preserves. Our best effort to date involves the Audubon Society. We are working with them in North Carolina to create better habitat for the Golden Winged Warbler. We are also interested in creating environments that are beneficial for bats, bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators. If anyone has relevant contacts or even just enough interest to do some research on our behalf it would help us to help these fragile populations.
We want the general public to use our properties for passive recreation and enjoyment. This includes hiking, nature observing, photography, and such. We need help creating trails, access points and signage.
Please consider if you can help in any way. Just providing relevant contacts would be enough!
These boots can tango anywhere!
So, if we are supposed to be taking care of conservation land should we have forestry crews on some of our properties this fall? Yes, we should.
First let’s consider the history of forestry in Georgia. If you want the long answer go here: http://www.gatrees.org/about-us/history/index.cfm and here: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/geography-environment/environmental-history-georgia-overview
If you want the short answer: Timber production has been very important to Georgia landowners and businesses starting in the 1930s. Timber companies owned huge portions of land across the state. Most undeveloped land has been used for pine production. Land planted as a pine plantation does not make a good forest.
Frankly a planted pine forest is really only ideal for pine harvesting. But they do offer value for water protection, soil structure and enrichment, carbon sequestration, and of course there are some animal species that thrive in such an environment. These land tracts also play an important role in alleviating pressure on natural forests for timber and fuel wood production. There is still some good environmental value in a properly managed forest plantation.
A natural forest has a variety of trees and a natural density. A natural density is such that the tree canopy keeps the forest floor from becoming thick with growth, but not so dense that trees aren’t able to reach their potential. The tree population also has a diversity of tree ages unlike our properties in which the trees were all planted at the same time.
The properties that we are thinning were clear cut and replanted with pine seedlings at some point in their history. These properties are so dense now that the trees are crowding each other which caused the forests to fall apart. The weakest trees died. Even the comparatively strong trees aren’t all that good because of all of the competition for sun, water, space and nutrients that they have dealt with throughout their lives. As trees fall they become potential hosts for pine beetles which can devastate a forest.
We have consulted with Georgia DNR foresters prior to cutting any trees and use their best practices recommendations when we plan the harvests. During the initial harvests we selectively cut between 40-50% of the trees in a pine plantation area. This allows for the remaining trees to begin reaching their potential. As a rule of thumb a pine tree lives about 40 years. Our properties haven’t been harvested for at least 20 years which is about 8 years too long. This means we will get on a cycle of thinning trees every 8 years and after two more harvests we’ll have the forests in a natural state.
The harvest process leaves behind what foresters call logging roads but we call hiking and biking trails. They also leave behind a couple of landing areas which can become parking areas, camping areas, and other uses. We also receive revenue which we reinvest in to the properties.
So yes, we are cutting trees. But our forests will be all the better for having done so.
As defined by Wikipedia:
a private, nonprofit organization that, as all or part of its mission, actively works to conserve land by undertaking or assisting in land or conservation easement acquisition, or by its stewardship of such land or easements; or an agreement whereby one party (the trustee) agrees to hold ownership of a piece of real property for the benefit of another party (the beneficiary).
As defined by Webster’s Dictionary of Law:
A trust created to effectuate a real estate ownership arrangement in which the trustee holds legal and equitable title to the property subject to the provisions of a trust agreement setting out the rights of the beneficiaries whose interests in the trust are declared to be personal property
How is it that I founded and run a Land Trust yet a Google search does not a yield a definition of Land Trust that I understand? And there begins our first challenge in telling people about our work and mission. In the first sentence “we are a land trust” most every listener probably thinks “I’ve heard of a land trust, but don’t think I know what it is”. I know when I first talked to someone about my desire to be involved in creating more parks he said “you should start a land trust”. As my mouth was saying “O.K. I’ll look into starting a Land Trust as the foundation to create parks” my brain was saying “What the heck is a Land Trust?”!
I have since found out what a land trust is and does.
It teaches the young and old. It calms the busy and inspires the inactive. It feeds bellies and souls. It cleans and absorbs water. It lets waterways flow and riverbanks grow. It tells stories of the past and waits patiently for the future. It lets trees grow and turtles nest. It heals earth and restrains man. It is good and I am not confused about that despite those Google search definitions.
So that was a lovely flowery little paragraph, not any better than the dictionary now is it? But here it is with fewer flowers and more rocks.
Land trust property:
Teaches when people walk with a child and spotting exciting things like pretty wild flowers, furry caterpillars, really tall trees and silly squirrels. Teaches when we label trees and plants along nature trails. Teaches when we partner with schools and colleges to provide field labs and hands on observation.
Calms by providing walking trails and open fields to absorb stress, soften grief, free thinking and share in joy. Inspires to exercise when a nice trail to walk is nearby. No membership to buy. No lessons to take. No special clothes or equipment needed. Bring a friend. Bring a dog. Play. Relax. Daydream.
Considerations before beginning the process of donating land or an easement
- Embrace the idea that you are making a gift to current and future generations regardless of potential financial gains or other considerations. If the motivation is purely financial then you may be disappointed and should seriously consider other options. But if you approach it as a balance of personal gain and public benefit you are on the right track to a successful transaction.
- Understand the value of the property. Get a qualified opinion of the property’s likely market value and a qualified appraisal. They both need to be considered.
- Understand your current financial situation. Are you better off liquidating property now? Should you wait to do a transaction when the property’s value or marketability has increased? Is there a possibility that you’ll have increased interest in potential tax savings in the near future? Continue reading 11 Things to Consider When Donating Land
We have land. It is conservation land. So what do we do with the land? Pretend like it is a precious jewel to be locked away from people? Hide it so no one knows it is there? Don’t touch it!
At first, I thought that our greatest value as an organization was to hold conservation and make sure that is stayed just the way it was. And then we got some land. Then came the realization that we have this land. What would you do if you had some land? I had no plans, but I had ears and eyes.
We heard about a group that is helping resettle refugees through a United Nations programs. They would bring these refugees into communities that were mostly home to other refugees. They would get them apartments, jobs, and support. But surveys of refugees that had been here for a few years kept exposing a flaw in the program. Many of these refugees came from many generations of living as subsistence farmers in small family based communities. Now they were living in crowded apartment complexes doing low wage service jobs. They were separated from their families when they worked. They missed farming. They missed having their families with them when they are farmed and they missed the very foods that they used to grow. So this group said let’s get these folks small pieces of land of around 1/8 acre so they can grow some food for themselves and their neighbors. And then they realized they were in the edge of a dream. They saw these farmers bringing fresh produce native to their homelands back to these food desert apartment complexes. They realized that the refugees could make a better and more fulfilling living by farming just a 3-5 acre plot. Yes 3-5 acres could yield enough income to get these families out of the working poor demographic and into the lower middle class. They saw the American dream. But they needed more land. They needed enough land for many families to have 3-5 acres plots. They needed room on this land to keep communal equipment such as a tractor. And they needed land for free. We have 150 acres of farm ready land. Farm land is a fine use for conservation land provided the farming is gentle on the land. And we are on the way to partnering with this group to grow food, improve families, and let them really grab hold of the American dream. How’s that for using conservation land?
We also heard about a group of university students engaged in developing and promoting permaculture agriculture. This is a technique in which a wide variety of produce can be grown in a very small area with very little pest and weed control. It is a type of system that was used for countless years when many families and small community groups had small gardens. This group needed some land to provide demonstration gardens. We are providing that land.
We saw that much of our land had been planted with pine trees for pulp wood production. The trees were too dense to grow properly and to provide habitat for a diverse forest. We are carefully thinning these areas with the goal of producing a more natural and diverse forest. We will receive income from that process which will fund other projects to improve the conservation value of our properties.
We saw community groups selling pumpkins for fundraising. We are offering some of our pasture land for that purpose.
We heard that public school and university students needed natural areas for scientific study and observation. We are in the process of formalizing an agreement with one major university and beginning the same process with two other universities.
We see the benefits of having walking trails available for the public and we have provided them.
Our land is saved for the people of tomorrow, but serving people every day.