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Saving the Door with the Door County Land Trust

In some ways, the remarkably successful Door County Land Trust (DCLT) is paradoxical. They protect and maintain roughly 4,800 acres of land throughout the peninsula – from Washington Island to Southern Door – yet much of the land they protect is off the main traveled roads and so remains hidden from public eye. And while much of this property is prime acreage in the county, it will never be developed and will remain in its natural state in perpetuity.

Though their land acquisitions are featured prominently in local news coverage, the work DCLT does day to day to acquire these properties is largely done quietly by a devoted staff and countless volunteers.

And although DCLT boasts over 2,000 members, the general understanding of their organization (what it does and how it operates) often seems limited among the general public. So, perhaps the best way to begin understanding this organization is to start with their history.

The Three Springs property in Sister Bay as it appeared in the 1950s. Contributed photo.

The DCLT was officially incorporated on June 7, 1986 by founding members Frank Failing, Jim Ingwersen, John Wilson, and Virginia and Bill Younkers. At this time the organization was known as the Door County Land Trustees (the name was changed to its present appellation in 1997). In the same year, Ruth Neumann donated the first conservation easement to the new organization.

A conservation easement becomes an important tool for the DCLT. In essence, this easement is a legally-binding agreement that limits certain types of uses or prevents development from taking place on the land in perpetuity while the land remains in private hands. Thus, conservation easements protect the land for future generations while allowing the property owner to retain many private property rights, including living on and using their land. To date, the DCLT has protected more than 60 private properties on the peninsula through conservation easements.

In 1995, the DCLT received a $50,000 bequest from the Ida Bay estate and made its first land purchase in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy:  60 acres along the north end of Kangaroo Lake. By 1996, the Land Trust owns one property, has protected another 400 acres through conservation easements, and it hires its first full-time employee when board member Dan Burke convinces the organization to hire him as executive director. Today, the DCLT has seven full and part-time staff members, including Terrie Cooper, Program Director, who was hired in 1998.

And the growth and success continued through ensuing years. In 2000 they purchased 180 acres of the former Hutter Estate north of Sturgeon Bay for $1.2 million by launching their first capital campaign to fund the purchase. Two years later they established the Stewardship Endowment to ensure the long-term health and stability of the organization. By 2004 they were recognized by the state as Wisconsin Land Trust of the Year, and just this past year, they completed the purchase of 421 acres they now call The Harold C. Wilson Three Spring Preserve just north of Sister Bay (their largest land purchase to date) and the Krueter Preserve in the Town of Clay Banks that includes over 3,000 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline.

But conservation easements and property acquisition are just one part of the ongoing work done by the DCLT. Certainly there is all the work that needs to be done in order to acquire the property, but the work of maintaining the property continues forever.

One of the more prominent examples of this ongoing work is the Ephraim Preserve at Anderson Pond, located just below the bluff at the south end of the village. The 27-acre property has a history that stretches back to one of Ephraim’s early founders and features habitats that include bluff, forest, meadow, and – most prominently – a spring-fed pond.

The DCLT purchased the property in 2005 at a cost of roughly $450,000. However, this figure included all the work necessary to close the purchase:  the purchase price, surveys, appraisal, legal work, title insurance, staff time, fundraising expenses, and organizational overhead. The Land Trust was able to raise this money through a significant grant from the Knowles/Nelson State Stewardship Fund and a generous grant from the Door County Green Fund. They were then able to match these grants with almost 100 individual grants from Ephraim area residents.

Myles Dannhausen, Jr.
Governor Jim Doyle at the Kreuter property to announce the Three Springs and Kreuter property acquisitions. Photo by Myles Dannhausen, Jr.

But these were simply the direct costs involved in obtaining the property. The next step (and just as important to the DCLT) was to endow the property in order to pay for the permanent, ongoing annual costs of owning, managing, and maintaining the property. This requires an additional fundraising effort; so, all the monies that were raised in excess of the $450,000 required to obtain the property were placed in a segregated and restricted Endowment Trust Fund that is managed by a local bank and a five-member Board of Trustees.

This Trust Fund is then used to help for things like property tax, trail creation and maintenance, annual stewardship including invasive species control and signage, and a kiosk with informational materials on the Anderson Pond property. But since only the interest can be used from the fund, it is important to build this fund as large as possible. Thus, the fundraising never truly ends.

Today, the Ephraim Preserve at Anderson Pond welcomes visitors and residents alike with off-street parking, a handsome kiosk, and well maintained trails. But the work of maintaining the property is ongoing. This one project is a microcosm of the work the DCLT does daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. And this is just one of over 20 properties that the DCLT owns and manages, which gives you some idea of the workload that the staff and volunteers perform on behalf of the organization and to the benefit of both the county and the state.

For all these reasons, support of the organization is constantly required. Certainly there are the big property purchases that entail specific fundraising initiatives, but donations at any time are crucial to the organization’s continued success.

The Kreuter property acquisition in Clay Banks includes a half mile of Lake Michigan shoreline. Photo by Julie Schartner contributed by the Door County Land Trust.

“It can look like we’re so well endowed that people may question why we always need additional funds,” explains DCLT Program Director, Terrie Cooper, “but we have a day-to-day reliance on donations. Every $1 we receive can be grown by as much as tenfold through our work.”

She goes on to explain that these ongoing donations, in addition to membership in the organization, provide the funds for all land owner outreach, grant writing, negotiation of land deals, public outreach and education, and staff salaries. They also provide documented support for the organization that becomes important in the grant writing process. In effect, general donations and memberships make the “nuts and bolts” of the organization work.

The Door County Land Trust has become a treasured part of both our peninsula and the State of Wisconsin – whether paradoxical or not. The work of their dedicated staff has made them a model for Land Trust organizations throughout the country and has earned the trust of countless landowners, donors, and volunteers. If you are interested in learning more about the organization you can visit their website at doorcountylandtrust.org where you can find information on the properties they protect and how you can take guided tours through their “Explore the Door” programs.

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