Land conservation efforts flourish across South Sound —

Land conservation efforts flourish across South Sound

John Dodge, The Olympian, March 17, 2009

OLYMPIA – South Sound land conservation groups are busier than ever, despite an economic downturn that cuts across the landscape.

In the past month, Capitol Land Trust has closed three deals to protect more than 130 acres of special habitat in Thurston and Mason counties, bringing its conserved land base in South Sound to more than 3,000 acres.

"We have another 2,500 acres in the works," said Capitol Land Trust executive director Eric Erler.

The past year has been good to the Nisqually Land Trust too, said the trust's executive director, Joe Kane. The nonprofit conservation group centered in the Nisqually River watershed has topped the 2,000-acre mark in fish and wildlife habitat protected and launched a three-year habitat restoration project to plant 50,000 native trees and 20,000 native shrubs.

Land transactions that are near closing could double the conservation group's land base later this spring, Kane said.

"We saw folks reluctant two years ago now saying: 'Let's make a deal,' " Kane said.

The continued success of the two land trusts during tough economic times can be traced to several factors.

Many of the recent transactions are fueled by state, federal and private grants and donations that were in the pipeline before the economy soured.

"A lot of the grant money was awarded before the economy sank," Erler said. "That makes us a willing buyer at a time when others can't make offers to willing sellers."

Both land trusts have matured over the past 20 years and developed increased credibility in the community as nonconfrontational, apolitical vehicles to protect habitat by purchasing it, rather than regulating it.

A case in point: Capitol Land Trust's annual conservation breakfast fundraiser last month was attended by 200 people of all political persuasions and with businesses as well represented as environmental groups.

"I'm amazed by the people I see at those breakfasts," Erler said. "It really is a cross-section of the community."

The land trusts are small enough to change strategies quickly to take advantage of new opportunities.

For many land trusts and other conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, that means working with farmers and forestland owners to protect habitat while allowing the farms and forests to remain in production.

"When you move toward ecosystem protection, you have to do conservation where people live, work and play," said Robin Stanton, spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy of Washington. For instance, The Nature Conservancy is paying farmers in the Skagit Valley to flood their fields in the winter to provide habitat for waterfowl.

And Capitol Land Trust's new strategic plan calls for the purchase of conservation easements on working farms that prohibit future development, but allows the farms to stay productive.

"Its an incredibly popular approach — the best way to go," said Pat Powell, president of the Washington Association of Land Trusts. "The best managers of these lands are the farmers and foresters that own them."

Ann Olli, 76, just sold the development rights to her 60-acre Shelton Valley farm in Mason County to Capitol Land Trust.

She's been connected to the property since her grandparent bought it in 1933 when she was six weeks old.

"I'm not getting any younger and there's no way I would ever sell it to developers," Olli said.

Land trusts rely on county, state and federal grant money to purchase conservation easements. Those funds could be shrinking in the months and years ahead. For instance, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed $50 million in the next state budget for the state Wildlife and Recreation Program, which helps buy everything from park land to fish and wildlife habitat to development rights on farms. That would represent a 50 percent cut from the current funding level.

"We're still lobbying for the $100 million," Powell said.

Erler conceded that the economic recession is a double-edged sword.

"On one hand, the declining market values create opportunity for land trusts, but there may be less motivation on the part of the landowner to sell when prices are down."

Conservation groups and habitat restoration projects could benefit from the economic stimulus package recently approved by Congress and President Barack Obama's proposed 2010 budget.

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge needs $4.5 million to complete estuary restoration on 760 acres of refuge land. The project is on a list of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projects deemed ready to put stimulus money to work.

"They're looking for shovel- ready projects that produce jobs and we're heading into the biggest year of construction this spring on a three-year project," refuge manager Jean Takekawa said. "We don't know yet, but we're hopeful and excited."

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