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Nature Preserves Proliferating in US

Thriving grass-roots land trusts have more than doubled the amount of land set aside for nature during the past decade.

In wide-open marshlands in the middle of this seacoast town, you can watch heron and egret roost while flights of migrating birds alight and depart with the regularity of planes at a busy airport. Ringed by eucalyptus below and the mist-kissed Santa Ynez mountains above, the view seems to stand outside of time.

"They were going to build 20 condos per acre here if we didn't organize to stop them," says Arturo Tello, member of a committee that 10 years ago began organizing citizens and local agencies to set aside, in a land trust, the 230-acre coastal estuary. "Our souls need the sustenance and nourishment of natural open space. This isn't just for nature's sake, it's for our sake, too."

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The idea behind land trusts dates back decades, but the past 10 years have seen remarkable growth in the amount of land that grass-roots groups have socked away. Since 1988, such trusts have more than doubled the amount of protected land, from 2 million to 4.7 million acres - an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island. More and more, citizens with no prior knowledge of how to preserve land by purchase, donation, and tax incentive are joining neighbors to do just that.

"People are seeing their open spaces disappear and rushing in to stop it," says Jean Hocker, president of Land Trust Alliance, a national nonprofit organization working to promote land conservation. Small operations that rely on scores of volunteers, these nonprofit groups have become major players in the American conservation movement, she says.

"The focus of the new wave of is not just on saving some wilderness space hundreds of miles away, but on the very farm, forest, or open space where they live," she adds.

The number of the groups themselves has also soared - to 1,213 this year, a 63 percent increase over the 743 that existed a decade ago, according to a Land Trust Alliance study released today. Unlike big-name conservation organizations - such as the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands - local land trusts usually run on shoestring budgets and rely on volunteers, not just for staffing, but for income and expertise in issues ranging from law to geology.

How Mr. Hawley works

Rich Hawley, president and founder 10 years ago of Greenspace: The Cambria Land Trust, is a case in point. The group's lone paid employee (he puts in 20 hours a week for the trust), Mr. Hawley works with a nine-member board of directors and 400 members on a yearly budget of about $150,000. About 150 volunteers give between eight hours a week and eight hours a year.

Hawley helps the land trust identify local properties that need to be preserved. He also oversees fund-raising, purchasing land, and advising landholders about the legal and tax benefits of donating land.

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"As development encroaches farther and farther into wild areas, land values soar to the point where the incentive for remaining landholders to sell to developers grows as well," says Hawley. "People need to become aware of the huge tax savings they can accrue by donating land to land trusts."

One of the new, creative frontiers for local land trusts is the Wild West.

In 1995, the Colorado Cattlemen's Association formed its own group to safeguard thousands of acres from encroaching ski development. Meanwhile, on desert land near the Mexico-Arizona-New Mexico border, ranchers concerned about growing subdivisions have formed the Malpai Borderlands Group.

"The main thing we are trying to do is preserve our livelihood while keeping this wonderful desert from being chopped up," says Wendy Glenn, spokeswoman for the group.

To buy open ranchland, the Malpai group has used one of many formulas employed by land trusts around the country. It assesses the value of the property for ranch use and the value for the "highest best use" - usually development. In exchange for not selling the ranch to developers, the trust pays the owner the difference between the two assessments.

One problem with this formula is that the land is forever devalued because it can't be developed - no matter how valuable the land around it becomes.

To get the money to buy its members' own easements, the Malpai Borderlands Group gets grants from various national foundations. But in Carpinteria, the local Santa Barbara Land Trust raises funds from dozens of sources ranging from millionaires to local fund-raising.

One moneymaker is artwork of endangered sites in the area. In 40 exhibitions, painters have raised $350,000 and donated it to the Santa Barbara trust and other environmental organizations. But for Mr. Tello, selling paintings is only half the battle.

"I sell paintings and I go to meetings," he says. That includes taking the case for preservation to City Hall, coastal commission hearings, and others. "The point is to make the issue real, to present to people the knowledge that open spaces are really precious to us."

It gets complicated

The downside of the land trust movement for now, say observers, is the uncertainty of slow and complicated procedures. In Carpinteria, no fewer than 17 property owners and 45 agencies have gotten involved over 15 years of planning and negotiating. Those include state, local, federal, university, and environmental bodies - all with varying vested interests and concerns.

"It can get really convoluted trying to come up with a single management plan to deal with this," says Wayne Ferren, reserve manager for the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve.

Some developers complain of the coercion, both polite and subtle, put on them by environmentalists and citizens alike. "To be honest, I promised [the potential developers of the marsh] 10 years of litigation and having to proceed over my dead body," Mr. Ferren says of negotiations for the marsh property.

But the benefits are more community involvement and the expression of community values. "Land trusts are a terrific mechanism to allow communities to express themselves," says Tom Wood, former coordinator for the Maine Heritage Land Trust. "When the key elements come together ... from the grass roots up rather than the government down, local character is preserved and enabled rather than enforced. It's a vastly different feel."

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