The Climate Corner

As organizations dedicated to preserving and protecting the lands that make Wisconsin special, Wisconsin land trusts have a unique responsibility to recognize how climate change is affecting those lands and to help their communities address those changes. I am particularly pleased to be asked to write about this important responsibility in the Pulse because our state’s land trust movement started in Door County and is so well represented in the county today. We all owe thanks for the county’s land trust leadership.

With its unique and stunningly beautiful landscape and civic-minded citizens, Door County led the way for private land conservation in Wisconsin with the formation of the state’s first land trust, The Ridges Sanctuary, in 1937. Today, the Door County Land Trust (founded in 1986) and The Nature Conservancy Wisconsin Chapter (founded in 1960) are also very active in the county. All three groups work closely together and alongside other public and private entities to protect and care for the places that make Door County so special. These groups are now part of a community of more than 50 land trusts in Wisconsin, and 1,700 nationwide, that inspire their communities to steward lands for future generations.

Simply stated, a land trust or conservancy is a private, nonprofit organization that actively works to conserve land through acquiring important parcels and by entering into conservation easement agreements with private landowners. Land trusts bring together landowners, donors, and federal, state and local agencies to identify, protect and manage unique lands to improve the health and beauty of their communities now and for future generations. Each local land trust works with its community to determine the most important land to conserve.

For some, the focus is on open space for recreation and tourism, for others it may be working farmland or forests, protecting endangered flora, wildlife habitat and undeveloped landscapes, or setting aside waterfront property to protect water quality and provide public access and scenic vistas. The common thread is a commitment to healthy communities and our responsibility to be sure our grandchildren and their grandchildren are able to enjoy the special places with which we have been blessed.

In all that they do, land trusts must look to the future, constantly planning for the changes that may affect the health of the land under their stewardship and may alter its value to the community. Whether the change is caused by development in the area, an increasing population, or by the significant warming of average air and water temperatures that is occurring today, land trusts have to be prepared to manage their obligations to the land and the community effectively – in perpetuity.

Across the country more land trusts are including climate change in their strategic planning. Emerging research is helping to identify land that will be critical as our world changes. In some places land trusts are creating natural corridors to allow for plant and animal migration as changing habitat conditions force species to move in order to survive.

In coastal areas, land trusts are setting aside wetland and shore land buffers in ways that will protect against erosion and improve water quality in the event of more frequent and higher intensity precipitation or drought. In other cases, land trusts are restoring habitats with more climate resilient native species, as is critical in places such as working forests where a forest suffering from a change in climatic conditions could lead to the loss of not only habitat, but also of jobs. In addition, many land trust projects provide much needed carbon sequestration by preserving forests, helping to offset carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Beyond these direct activities, land trusts are well-positioned to provide a forum for discussion and dialogue on issues such as climate change. The staff, boards of directors and members of local land trusts are politically diverse, but united by their commitment to a healthy environment through conservation. They represent a cross-section of the community. Business leaders, farmers, elected officials, and concerned citizens come together at land trust meetings and events to talk about what is most important for the places they all care about regardless of political affiliation. As a convener of civic leaders, land trusts can help to move climate change out of the partisan divide by focusing attention on how land conservation can help communities adapt to and lessen the impacts of a changing climate.

Communities thrive when they come together to define and actively confront challenges. Wisconsin land trusts have the opportunity to play a key role in meeting the challenges of climate change in Wisconsin. We already admire land trusts for the many ways they enrich our communities. Helping to mitigate the effects of a changing climate on our lands and waters is yet another reason to appreciate and support their work here on the Door Peninsula.

Michael Strigel is executive director of Madison-based Gathering Waters Conservancy, the umbrella organization representing Wisconsin’s 50 land trusts. Before joining Gathering Waters, Strigel was executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; a flood mitigation specialist with FEMA; prairie restoration project director for The Prairie Enthusiasts; and a field ecology associate with the International Crane Foundation.

The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at: [email protected].