It’s mid-October and I’m on The Nature Conservancy’s 9,000-acre Staten Island, part of the 46,000 acre Cosumnes River Preserve, in California’s Sacramento River Delta. Owned by the Conservancy, the island is all farmland, farmed for the benefit of migrating birds. I’m looking over fields of harvested wheat, corn and potatoes as hundreds of 5-foot-tall greater sandhill cranes jump and dance in the fields. As I watch, hundreds more arrive with their haunting, gurgling call.
It’s a valley almost totally dedicated to agriculture. As wildlife-friendly crops are being converted to grapes, olives and walnuts, crops with minimal wildlife values, it is the work of a land trust that plays a key role for the future of these sandhill cranes. The entire western population of greater sandhill cranes relies on this preserve for their very survival. Located strategically on one of the last fully functioning floodplain habitats in California, and on the only free flowing river coming out of the Sierras, the preserve is an example of what land trusts are about.
I’m here on a field trip for “Rally,” the annual conference for The Land Trust Alliance, the national organization representing land trusts. The Alliance represents 1,100 land trusts across the U.S. with five million individual members. These land trusts protect 24 million acres of private lands. And, while there are some large national trusts, like The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands, the vast majority of the land trusts are small, local organizations connected to a specific place and supported by their local communities.
There are 19 land trusts in Oregon, working cooperatively through the efforts of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, and more than 5,000 volunteers, to protect more than 344,000 acres. And the national diversity of small, locally driven land trusts is reflected in Oregon as well.
Land trusts protect land by buying it. They also purchase or accept donations of conservation easements, which they then monitor for compliance. With an easement, the property owner sells or donates certain specified development rights, forever. Trusts also protect land by partnering with communities, utilities, and state and federal agencies. And, because the land trust focus is on private land, they often protect resources that are under-represented on public lands.
Land trusts are locally driven, protecting resources important to the community. As a result, land trusts work to protect a wide variety of resources. There are trusts that protect historic sites, rock climbing sites, public access to outdoor recreation, farmland, wildlife habitat, water quality, rural heritage and more, based on local community priorities.
To be successful, land trusts work as part of a broader conservation community. In the Sacramento Delta, The Nature Conservancy works with Ducks Unlimited, the BLM, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the local farming communities. In our community, the McKenzie River Trust works closely with the Long Tom and Middle Fork watershed councils, Friends of Buford Park & Mt. Pisgah, EWEB, and federal and state and county agencies. These partnerships expand the trust’s effectiveness to make strategic acquisitions of land and easements.
Land trusts often make news over a high profile purchase in six or even seven figures, but it’s the support from individual local donors that make it possible to do these important projects. Grants from government agencies and foundations don’t usually pay the bills to keep the doors open. It’s individual donors who do that. Land trusts can’t apply for grants, or buy land or easements, or protect and restore land, or fulfill the monitoring requirements that come with conservation easements, without the support of the local community.
Working with its local partners and with the support of our community, the McKenzie River Trust is protecting more than 4,500 acres of land in the McKenzie, upper Willamette, Siuslaw and Umpqua watersheds. Examples include the spectacular Green Island, an 1,100-acre former family farm at the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers, the Berggren Farm on the McKenzie River, as well as other land and easements on the McKenzie, Umpqua, Siuslaw and Long Tom rivers, and on Coyote Creek.
At Green Island, I look out over the former Green family farm. I see levies breached to reconnect the land with the river. I see the results of hundreds of volunteers planting thousands of native plants in the newly connected floodplain. I see former gravel mining pits restored and returned to the river, creating refuge and sanctuary for native fish and wildlife. I see the Oregon chub brought back from the brink of extinction.
No, there are no cranes here, yet. But what I see here is even more inspiring. I see a family’s legacy with the land continuing according to their own wishes. I see invasive non-native fish replaced with salmon, steelhead, cutthroat trout and chubs, all natives. What I see here is hope, hope for the future, and for the continuing return of a living river. — Bob Warren