Land Protected – Now What?
Each new land protection project generates a rush of joy and excitement. However, after the initial furor fades, the task of ensuring that conserved land remains permanently protected shifts to the shoulders of SAHC’s devoted stewardship crew. Perhaps the least understood aspect of our work, yet an integral component of the “forever” commitment to conservation, SAHC’s Stewardship Program is responsible for ongoing communication with landowners, annual monitoring of conserved land, defense against violations — and much more. Here’s what it takes to accomplish that commitment.
The Stewardship aspect of SAHC’s work centers on the perpetual care and protection of land and water. This entails everything from walking the property to keeping detailed documentation of changes over time and building relationships with landowners. Holistically, the “Stew Crew” is charged with the health of the living systems that surround us — ensuring that the waters remain pure and flowing, that natural communities flourish and invasive threats are removed, and that the people who live on and use the land understand the terms of conservation easements, which aim to protect “conservation values” that benefit the region and world at large. Of the more than 80,000 acres that SAHC has protected since 1974, we are responsible for stewarding over 54,000 acres of conservation easements and preserves. SAHC follows accreditation requirements and Land Trust Alliance standards and practices in accomplishing this work.
Stewardship Program Responsibilities
The Stew Crew is responsible for creating and implementing land management plans for SAHC preserves. These plans outline hands-on management of each SAHC preserve and include everything from marking boundaries and improving habitat for species of conservation concern to implementing erosional control measures, administering contracts for invasive species removal and implementing tax deferment strategies. For conservation easements, they produce baseline documentation, thorough visual and written descriptions of the land and its conservation values.
“Both preserves and conservation easements must be monitored EACH year — a task that has grown exponentially as we continue to protect land,” says Stewardship Director Sarah Sheeran. “Providing educational resources and establishing and maintaining positive relationships with partner organizations, landowners, and neighbors form an integral part of stewardship work.” In record keeping, the Stew Crew maintains clean, unambiguous and defensible permanent records, including GIS data and monitoring reports. Enforcement involves ensuring the terms of conservation easement areas are upheld (including reserved rights and prohibited activities), resolving violations, and administering Terrafirma claims and conservation easement amendments.
Keeping up with Technology
With a growing portfolio of conserved land that we are responsible for monitoring each year, SAHC’s Stew Crew is on the forefront of researching and applying innovative new technology to improve efficiencies. High resolution imagery from remote monitoring can be used to detect changes in the forest canopy relatively quickly — even before a scheduled stewardship visit to a property. GPS devices and tablets are used in-the-field to record location, photos and notes for monitoring reports.
A Tough and Rewarding Job
Most of our conservation stories are warm and fuzzy — happy memories and successful projects celebrated upon completion. But what happens when our conscientious monitoring uncovers a “violation” of the terms of a conservation easement or preserve?
“In many cases, a violation occurs because of a lack of knowledge or understanding, and our team works with the landowner or neighbor to resolve the violation,” explains Sarah. “For example, a neighbor may have made improvements on their property which encroach on conserved land, and we discover the encroachment during a monitoring visit. We work with the neighbor to remedy the issue, which could mean removing structures or returning an area to its previous state.”
However, in rare cases the team uncovers a bad actor. On one of SAHC’s preserves in the Sandy Mush community, the Stew Crew discovered that someone had cut and stolen timber — several large diameter trees that had been purposefully extracted from well within a marked conservation preserve. SAHC investigated the loss and worked with local law enforcement and attorneys to find the guilty party and hold them accountable.
“Cases like this require substantial effort and funds to pursue,” says Sarah. “But pursuing legal defense is a necessary part of our commitment to protecting land for the long term.” In this case, SAHC filed a Terrafirma claim to help with the legal defense. The Land Trust Alliance formed Terrafirma in 2011 to help land trusts defend conserved lands from legal challenges. It is owned by its members to insure the costs of upholding conservation easements and fee lands held for conservation purposes when they have been violated or are under legal attack.
“We know that prevention is better than a cure, so our Stew Crew works diligently to improve boundary posting signage and engage in long-term relationships with landowners and neighbors,” adds Sarah. “Stewardship is demanding but rewarding work requiring significant time and staff resources. I love being able to touch and feel, to walk and see the beautiful places we protect — to get to know the people who live here and to share this experience with team members and volunteers.”