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Private land conservation booms in US

Owners protected 37 million acres from development last year, a 54 percent jump from 2000.

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Look out development sprawl, the land trusts are coming.

Each year the US loses about 2 million acres of open space, farms, and forest to development. But now the tables are turning. Rather than see local green space and rugged outdoor areas gobbled up by strip malls or subdivisions, private land owners are increasingly preserving it.

Out on the east fork of New Mexico's Gila River, the endangered Gila trout is getting help from adjacent landowners who are setting aside 48,000 acres in several land trusts to protect its habitat by preventing development.

At the same time, on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, 206 properties totaling more than 38,000 acres of fragile estuary habitat for migratory birds and marine life, like the short nose sturgeon, have been permanently set aside using legal tools like land trusts and conservation easements.

It's all part of a huge new boom in conservation of private lands in which landowners voluntarily give up rights to develop their land – often in return for tax breaks, but also to save rugged landscapes they love.

Private land set aside for conservation grew 54 percent from 24 million acres to 37 million acres– an area larger than New England – between 2000 and 2005, according to a recent study by the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington-based umbrella group of local, state, and national land conservation groups.

National groups such as The Nature Conservancy were key in this push for preservation. But the biggest drivers for growth were volunteer local and state land trusts, whose protected acreage doubled from 6 million acres in 2000 to 11.9 million acres. Meanwhile the rate at which those associations were saving land tripled to 1.2 million acres a year between 2000 and 2005.

"People are not sitting around and waiting for a Washington bureaucrat to solve the problem of strip malls in their own backyard – they're forming land trusts," says Rand Wentworth, president of the alliance.


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