Land trusts are nonprofit groups that assist in setting up conservation, agricultural, and other land-preservation easements and then act as land stewards. Over the five-year period, their numbers leaped by nearly a third to 1,667, the study shows. The focus of such trusts varied widely with 39 percent protecting natural areas and wildlife habitat to 38 percent for open space and 26 percent wetlands and water resources. Others focused on preserving farms, local parks, and urban gardens.
The single largest such deal saw 763,000 acres of Maine's Pingree forest protected by a 2001 conservation easement now overseen by the New England Forestry Foundation, preserving the shorelines of many pristine lakes.
Even though land conservation during the five-year period grew faster than sprawl, that's no reason for complacency, Mr. Wentworth says.
"Sprawl is breathing down our necks in the communities in which we live," he says. "We need these community land trusts with urgency."
Funding from government agencies for land acquisition has dropped significantly in recent years. But state and local bond issues in which the public votes to fund land purchases has been booming.
The public is voting solidly to increase taxes in order to preserve land, Wentworth notes. In 2006 alone, 133 ballot initiatives nationwide from California to Georgia, New Jersey, Texas, and North Carolina raised $6.7 billion in public funding for land conservation.
Residents of Austin, Texas voted in November to spend more than $50 million to buy open space, says George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, a land trust. Much of that will go to preserve land critical to recharging local aquifers the city depends on for drinking water.