How Land Acquisition Works

It takes a lot more than friendly neighbors and a countywide conservation ethic for land to trade hands from private ownership to perpetual conservation. Different land stewardship organizations from the Door County Land Trust to The Nature Conservancy and Department of Natural Resources take different routes to protect and care for ecologically sensitive land.

The process isn’t as easy as getting a call from a conservation-minded seller. These organizations don’t bring every piece of land that comes to them under their wings. The legwork before the deed changes hands is where the true conservation ethic is found.

“Our first set of criteria is, does it meet with our mission?” said Julie Schartner, land project manager with the Door County Land Trust. “We have in our strategic plan what we call the Land Prioritization Plan where we’ve identified the best opportunities at places we’re looking for land protection.”

Schartner slides a book across the table with an outline of the Door County peninsula shaded with four colors. Each color represents a conservation goal and the colors indicate the place on the peninsula where that goal can be best served.

Red strips lining the western coast of the county indicate the Niagara Escarpment. Green spots mark native forests. Yellow strips along the entire shoreline mark migratory and nesting bird habitat. Blue brush strokes cover swaths of the peninsula, where ground and surface water is most susceptible.

“Any one of those goals is important but you’ll see there are some areas where those goals really overlap so those definitely rank high for us in terms of future land protection efforts,” said Schartner.

Like any nonprofit or conservation group, money is limited. The land trust funds many of its purchases through grants and that process can take a long time.

“We are not sitting with just cash in the bank,” said Terrie Cooper, director of Land Program at the land trust. “Julie and I write federal and state grants that have the same goals as we do for protecting these resources. We need landowners who are conservation minded and patient.”

A land purchase can sometimes take up to two years from the first conversation between landowner and land trust. Through that process, the organization may find that the land simply isn’t aligned strongly enough with conservation goals. Cooper describes this as the most difficult aspect of her job.

“Everybody’s piece of land is special to them but we have to certainly prioritize and narrow down our focus,” she said. “Probably half of [the calls] don’t fit our criteria and that is hard to tell somebody that.”

The limits on negotiating the sale can also place a burden on acquiring the property. Conservation groups are oftentimes not permitted to buy land at anything more than fair market value. The land trust gets an independent appraisal of the land, separate from the tax assessment, and they will not pay a cent more.

Those challenges open the door for another popular method, the conservation easement.

A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a conservation group to apply certain restrictions on the property that will achieve goals in conservation. The landowner still owns the land privately and they can sell it or pass it on to future generations, but any new owner will be required to uphold the agreement outlined in the conservation easement.

In November of 2016, the land trust entered into one of its largest conservation easements with Lawrence University’s Björklunden campus on the south shore of Baileys Harbor, protecting 305 acres of land. One condition of the agreement is to allow Lawrence to continue development of a small area dedicated to providing renewable energy to the campus. Other easements can have similar modifications to best serve the landowner while still protecting the land.

“It takes probably a year to go through the process of negotiating a conservation easement, what exactly you are trying to protect, making sure it will meet the landowner’s future needs as those needs change yet protect those conservation values,” said Schartner.

Conservation easements don’t cost any money up front, but Cooper explained that the easements can provide their own unique challenges that often make outright ownership more attractive.

“It’s easier for us honestly to buy land. When land trusts start out they all think easements are easy and free but the long term management of those is actually more complicated,” said Cooper. “You work out these agreements, you record them and through perpetuity, forever, we have to make sure the terms of that easement are honored for generations and generations.”

New landowners who purchase property with a conservation easement may not understand the restrictions or simply may not have the same conservation ethic as the previous landowner.

Tom Clay, executive director of the Door County Land Trust, said stewardship of the land is where the conservation work truly takes place. Buying property is the easy part.

“We have a stewardship endowment fund, which is so important especially for easements, that we have the ability to care for that land, to have the means to do that over the long term,” said Clay, noting another legal defense fund that is used if easement agreements are not upheld.

Roughly half of the land protected by the Door County Land Trust is under conservation easement while the other half is owned outright.

While land acquisition never gets easy, the Door County Land Trust has built relationships with the community to the point where they are a neighbor’s first thought when considering conservation of their property. When the land trust began 31 years ago, landowners came to them with property and they often took it. But as conservation goals were developed, important regions were identified and trust in the organization grew, they had the opportunity to do more strategic outreach while being welcomed with friendly faces.

“People know that we’re in the neighborhood,” said Cooper. “I think we’re very strategic and we’ve let people know and as a result of that when they’re ready, they call us; those are not cold calls. They are calls having gone out and done all this outreach.”

Schartner recalls meeting with a landowner who pulled out a letter from 1992, when the land trust first contacted them about their interest in the land.

“I think when it comes to land protection work, it’s not something that happens overnight,” said Schartner. “People have a relationship with their land, they love their land so it might be the timing, there might be something in their world that triggers them…but they hold onto those letters and they keep us in mind.”

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