Published in CT Insider/Connecticut Magazine

By David Holahan

They are ubiquitous yet manage to fly under the radar. Virtually every Connecticut town has one. Together, they have 70,000 members and control more than one out of every 20 acres in Connecticut, way more than the federal government.

And they’re after more.

If they had a theme song it would go something like this, with apologies to Woody Guthrie:

This land is your land, this land is my land

From the Thompson Speedway to the Thimble Islands

From the Salisbury forests to the Stonington waters

This land was made for you and me.

Connecticut would not be the same without its 130 individual and regional land trusts, devoted as they are to conservation. It wouldn’t be as wild and scenic. There would be 500 fewer miles of hiking trails, fewer nature programs, fewer urban farms and community gardens, fewer popular events such as the Tour de Lyme, which attracted some 700 cyclists in June.

Perhaps most telling, without these independent nonprofits the state would be hard-pressed to meet its goal, set by the state General Assembly in 1997, of conserving 21 percent of its land base: 10 percent by the state itself and 11 percent by others, such as land trusts and municipalities. This was the year that ambitious milestone, 673,210 acres set aside, was supposed to be reached. Guess what: we have a long way to go.

At its current pace of acquisition, it will take the state government, led by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), 65 years to reach its quota of 21 percent from the current 18 percent conserved. On the other side of the ledger, land trusts account for approximately 215,000 acres already being preserved, 85 percent of all non-state-held conservation property. But the DEEP’s partners in this conservation quest are also well short of their 2023 target — in large part, because the state has been persistently parsimonious with its annual grants for local acquisition efforts.

“Connecticut is lagging behind,” says Walker Holmes, Connecticut director of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit that partners with local land trusts. “Connecticut has an enormous opportunity to protect land and create parks that will make the state thrive. But we have a lot of work to do. By the numbers we are behind. In terms of funding, we are also behind.”

Amy Paterson, executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, agrees, pointing to statistics to document this backsliding trend (see sidebar on environmental funding on page 77). The CLCC is the umbrella organization for Connecticut’s 130 land trusts. “Our state ranks as the lowest in New England and one of the lowest nationally in terms of the combined federal and state funding per capita for land conservation,” she says.

While Connecticut is struggling to reach 21 percent, several sister states, the Biden administration, and more than 100 foreign nations have taken the 30x30 pledge: to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030. A 2021 presidential executive order titled “America the Beautiful” summarizes the rationale for this ambitious target: “to safeguard the nation’s water and food supplies, benefit local economies, stem the decline of wildlife populations and biodiversity, and improve climate resilience.”

“Connecticut has an enormous opportunity to protect land and create parks that will make the state thrive. But we have a lot of work to do.”

Among the specific reasons cited for urgent action: the loss of half of the river ecosystems and wetlands in the lower 48 states; loss of 90 percent of the live coral in the Florida Keys; loss of 17,000 square miles of farm and ranchland in the past two decades; loss of nearly 30 percent of the aggregate avian population (3 billion fewer birds) in North America over the past 50 years: and the alarming decline of bees and other pollinators which are critical to crop yields.

And if the stakes weren’t high enough already, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of international scientists convened by the United Nations, reported in March that the next decade will be critical for keeping the rise in the earth’s average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels. Beyond that point, the IPCC warns, the impacts of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction become significantly harder for humanity to handle. And in May, the World Meteorological Organization announced that, for the first time, it was more likely than not that the Earth would exceed the 1.5-degree threshold for at least one year within the next five years. While the breach might be temporary, the WMO says, it would be a clear sign of accelerating warming.

Concern for the environment’s health is nothing new. In 1845, from his rustic retreat at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau lamented what he saw as humankind’s degradation of the natural world. Later in the century, in 1891, New England was where America’s land trust movement was born, when the Trustees of the Reservations was founded in Massachusetts. The Connecticut Forest and Park Association got started in 1895 and is going strong with 2,250 acres preserved. The state’s first town land trust, the Newtown Forest Association, was established in 1924. It is still active with nearly 300 members and some 1,450 acres under conservation. Like most of its peers, Newtown was all volunteer from the start, but in 2021 it hired an executive director, its first paid staffer after 99 years.

Others have followed suit, most recently the East Haddam Land Trust, which hired a part-time executive director this year with the fundraising goal of eventually hiring a full-time person. The Lyme Land Conservation Trust began hiring paid staff in 2012 and now has two full-timers: an executive director and an environmental director as well as a third part-time employee. The hiring coincided with its launch of its popular Tour de Lyme, which now raises $90,000 a year for the trust.

As these organizations grow and evolve, the all-volunteer model clearly can benefit from a shot in the arm. The Lyme trust is a prime example of the complexity of operating an ambitious nonprofit in a small town: it conserves and maintains 3,133 acres in dozens of preserves, 14 of those with miles of public trails. That’s nearly 15 percent of the town. It also maintains hundreds of acres of property in Lyme for The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter. In addition, the organization has 468 member households for whom it offers regular programing (non-members are welcome as well), such as weekly preserve hikes called Tuesday Treks, curated weekend nature walks led by an environmental expert, and educational activities for all ages. Its Tree Collective program enables 14- to 18-year-olds to get out in nature and blaze trails in forbidding places like Selden Island in the Connecticut River.

This past winter the Lyme trust broke ground on a dedicated building that will house its staff and include two bays for stewardship paraphernalia. Founded in 1966, this little land trust that could now has an annual budget of $330,000 and plans to keep expanding its reach.

Besides hiring and adding infrastructure, another way land trusts can cope with growth and rising responsibilities is to merge. With its 169 municipalities, many of them quite small and sparsely populated, Connecticut is known for its pronounced (some argue perverse) parochialism; the creation of individual land trusts has followed that small-town model. While some towns like Lyme (population 2,352) have robust and active trusts, others are small and anemic. In West Hartford (population 63,023), the land trust manages a mere 20 acres and has 15 members.

A merger with stronger nearby land trusts might be just what the doctor ordered, and that is what happened this spring, when the West Hartford, East Granby and Wintonbury (Bloomfield) land trusts agreed to merge. “I’m excited about the merger,” says Amy Paterson of the CLCC, which helped to facilitate it. She points out that in 2021 the regional Aspetuck Land Trust based in Westport merged with one in Monroe.

Amanda Thompson is president of the East Granby Land Trust, which conserves 322 acres and has 85 members: “There’s been a big push to have land trusts merge because it’s just more efficient. You don’t need one land trust for every one of the 169 towns in Connecticut. It’s about maximizing resources. And you want a strong board, and maybe there is a great lawyer in West Hartford that would be part of the new board for our three formerly separate entities.”

Whether they are regional or one-town operations, they play “an incredibly important role in the protection of land throughout Connecticut,” says Lindsay Suhr, DEEP’s director of land acquisition and management. She adds, “They are the local eyes and ears in the conservation world. They are tapped into conservation commissions, local regulations [and] legislators and private property owners who are willing to work on land-protection projects. DEEP closely partners with the land trust community and is extremely grateful for their support and their efforts to advance state open-space protection goals.”

“[Land trusts play] an incredibly important role in the protection of land throughout Connecticut. They are the local eyes and ears in the conservation world.”

In the beginning, the approach of land trusts, and conservation groups in general, was much simpler, according to Aaron Lefland, deputy director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council: “There was a time when trusts set land aside and didn’t do anything with it, and then they slowly started building trails and opening the preserves up and welcoming people onto the properties.”

Mission accomplished, at least in part. Nature nurtures people, a long-held notion cemented by recent scientific studies. A 2020 article in a publication of the American Psychological Association reported: “From a stroll through a city park to a day spent hiking in the wilderness, exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders, and even upticks in empathy and cooperation.”

Sounds like it would be a good idea for members of the U.S. Congress to take a bipartisan hike. In fact, concern for the environment and preserving wild places is one area where both parties have regularly agreed. Land conservation appeals to a broad constituency, from hikers and bird watchers to hunters and anglers. One example of this political détente was the passage of the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act, which provides $1.9 billion annually to address the maintenance backlog at national parks and forests — as well as $900 million a year in land and water conservation funding for state and tribal governments. The bill passed easily, and President Donald Trump signed it into law.

Three subsequent bills passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden — the Inflation Reduction, Infrastructure, and Build Back Better acts — also provide additional funding for state conservation programs. The exact accounting of how much Connecticut will receive has yet to be determined, according to Suhr. But it is likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars annually, and DEEP is already anticipating some of that revenue in its proposed 2024 budget — for example, to fund nine new positions.

While some oppose the acquisition of conservation land because it takes parcels off the town tax rolls, studies have shown that, among other benefits, property values tend to rise in areas where parks or protected preserves are established. In addition, residential development often costs more in town services than it generates in taxes.

This debate aside, preserving land for various purposes — whether for recreation, to promote clean air and water, to mitigate climate change, or to protect wildlife — has long been endorsed by the laws of the land, at all levels. The American land trust movement received a major boost 45 years ago when the U.S. Congress allowed taxpayers to take a deduction for donations of land or conservation easements to reputable nonprofits.

While land trusts are expanding their footprint in Connecticut and beyond and have become more community conscious over the decades, some believe they could and should do more. Local preserves with trails are open to all, but many are difficult to access, for example, by many urban residents and handicapped people.

“There should be more of an effort in my opinion to get more people from marginalized communities taking advantage of our properties,” said John Pritchard, who is president of the board of the Lyme Land Conservation Trust as well as board chair of the Connecticut chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “There are efforts by land trusts and The Nature Conservancy to expand usage of their preserves by people who historically may not have felt as welcome there.”

In East Haddam, as an example, the Patrell Preserve features a paved, ADA-compliant trail from its parking lot to a bridge (built by land trust volunteers) over the Eightmile River.

To discuss concerns that land trust lands tend to benefit people in well-to-do rural and suburban areas, where the bulk of preserved acreage is located, the Connecticut Land Conservation Council hosted a conference in February titled “Summit on Housing and Conservation.” Workshop panel facilitator Maryam Elahi, executive director of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, is among those who argued that land trusts could better address community needs, such as affordable housing and food insecurity.

“People in the land trust movement can be excellent ambassadors for talking to the people in their towns about ensuring that there is mixed housing for people who live and work in their towns,” Elahi says. “Land trusts should incorporate in their mission statements that for every parcel of land acquired, they should allot x-square footage for developers to build affordable housing for families that otherwise could not afford a home in that area, for the people who teach our children or work at the drugstore.”

She could think of only one town in Connecticut doing this. The Salem Land Trust, serving a rural town of barely 4,000 residents, and the Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust (SE CT CLT), a regional and urban-focused nonprofit, have been working together for more than a year to acquire property that would combine the goals of land preservation and affordable housing. According to the regional land trust’s president, Joanne Sheehan, its mission encompasses “holding land for the development of permanently affordable housing and food production. This includes a commitment to preserve the affordability of farms for farmers, stabilizing access to locally produced food.”

Conservationists see the preservation of Connecticut’s disappearing farmland as one of the areas that land trusts can help mitigate, along with acquiring properties with historical significance. Of the state’s over 3 million total acres, only about 6 percent is used for agriculture, and of that, only 1 percent is protected from development.

When the Salem Land Trust and the SE CT CLT found a likely and available parcel, Salem trust members David and Annie Bingham purchased the 200-acre farm with the intention of conveying it at a discounted price to the trusts for dual purposes. The farmhouse, outbuildings and approximately 16 acres of the site will be spun off and be made available to SE CT CLT, which in turn will offer it at an affordable price to a local farmer. The farmer would own the house while the SE CT CLT would retain title to the 16 acres. The Salem trust would acquire the rest of the property. As of this writing, details are still being finalized.

In addition to small-town land trusts like Salem’s, Connecticut also boasts regional conservation organizations and national entities with chapters that serve the state, such as the Land Trust Alliance, a national umbrella organization for American land trusts, and the Trust for Public Land (TPL). The latter nonprofit conserves more than 8,000 acres in Connecticut and is working on two ambitious projects, in Bridgeport and Hartford. “We do projects that have a high level of cost, risk and complexity,” said Walker Holmes, TPL’s Connecticut state director. “We work in partnership with land trusts in Connecticut and also with cities and towns to help advance park and open space goals here.”

In Bridgeport, TPL is helping the city plan and develop a 19-mile waterfront pathway that will provide much-needed access to Long Island Sound. Some 40,000 residents live within a 10-minute walk of the planned nature trail. In Hartford, TPL is working with residents and local organizations to save the Sterling Street Sanctuary, a 1.2-acre community park in the Upper Albany neighborhood that once was a parking lot. A fundraising goal of $400,000 has been established to refurbish the site and prevent a threatened sale.

TPL’s Holmes is also on the board of Gather New Haven, an ambitious, multi-faceted organization that is the prototype for what urban land trusts can accomplish. (Neither Bridgeport nor Hartford has a land trust.) Gather grew out of the New Haven Land Trust, which was founded in 1982 and recently merged with two other city nonprofits: Schooner Inc. in 2017 and New Haven Farms in 2020. The new muscular amalgam — it has five full-time staff members and an annual budget of nearly $1 million — engages residents with a variety of programs and activities. Gather’s 50 community gardens scattered about the city attract some 600 volunteers, and the harvest helps ease food insecurity in the Elm City. Gather also manages two urban farms in New Haven, and its Growing Entrepreneurs program hires high school students to help maintain them.

The farms and gardens provide nutritious produce for the nonprofit’s wellness program, a partnership with health centers in New Haven that care for the city’s most medically underserved residents. Partners include Fair Haven Community Health Center and Yale Primary Care. Gather’s summer Schooner Camp for 6- to 14-year-olds attracts some 320 fledgling sailors annually.

Given all the above, it would be easy to forget that Gather New Haven remains at its core a land trust. Its six preserves offer more than 80 hikeable acres, many of them waterfront properties, such as its 35-acre Quinnipiac Meadows Nature Preserve. Trails lead to a bird-watching blind overlooking a salt marsh and the Quinnipiac River.

Considering all of Gather’s community involvement, Executive Director Leigh Youngblood can be forgiven for bragging a bit: “I think Gather New Haven stands out as a land trust in the way we serve the community. We have six interrelated programs. There are many aspects, of course, to the environment, and there are many ways to get people outdoors and engaged with the environment. We are a very dynamic organization.”

What hasn’t been dynamic over the decades is the state’s commitment to its self-professed conservation goals, as well as to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “The DEEP has been tasked over the years with doing more and more and more with less and less and less,” says Keith Ainsworth, an environmental lawyer who represents 19 Connecticut land trusts and is acting chair of the Governor’s Council on Environmental Quality. “That’s been the case forever,” he adds.

Whether this will continue to be the case is unclear. Old habits are hard to break. What is certain, however, is that there is money, lots of it, in the till — the state surplus is north of $3 billion. And several federal bills are just starting to funnel federal largess to the states. With environmental alarm bells ringing from sea to shining sea, the question is: Will Connecticut continue to take its land and waters for granted?

How I fell in love with the nature preserve next door

I am a longtime “land nut” (as my neighbor calls me) and proud member of the East Haddam Land Trust. I keep the trails clear in Ayers Preserve, the modest conservation parcel adjacent to our property, as well as to the Eightmile River. My wife volunteers, too, and recently was elected to the board of this hometown nonprofit.

The six-acre Ayers allotment was owned by a gentleman of that name who served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in Groton for a time. He planted Christmas trees there but never got around to harvesting them. Too close together, the invasive spruces grew too tall and commenced crashing down with alarming regularity. We could hear them fall from our deck.

Many years ago, Mr. Ayers offered the property to us. Being impecunious in the mid-1980s, we suggested he call the East Haddam Land Trust. He liked the idea.

Diverse neighbors emerge periodically from Ayers into our scraggly hayfield. Our dog Sophie went nose to nose with a coyote once, and before I could run to her rescue (brandishing a Wiffle Ball bat) both canines, thankfully, blinked. Another time she flushed a wild turkey off its nest in the Ayers brambles, but never found the eggs (there were almost a dozen). Sophie and a 10-point buck had an epic staredown from opposite banks of the river.

Over the years I have seen, in or about Ayers: mink, otter, bobcat, fox, owls, bald eagles, hawks, beavers, woodcock, herons, wood ducks and songbirds galore. There are bears around, although I have yet to encounter one.

Walking Ayers calms me down, slows my pace and raises my gaze as I scan the canopy for birds. I proceed at a snail’s pace, when I’m moving at all. Spotting a golden-crowned kinglet, a saw-whet owl or a scarlet tanager can turn my gray skies to blue.

Our town trust was founded in 1979, has more than 300 members, and conserves nearly 700 acres, which will soon grow to almost 900 acres when it closes on two large parcels that are in the pipeline. Of the 18 EHLT preserves, all but two have public hiking trails maintained by volunteers.

The EHLT offers regular programs, including stewardship parties, nature walks, kayak and canoe excursions, a summer concert on the banks of the Connecticut River, and an annual nature photo contest. You meet the nicest people at these events. Annual memberships start at $20.

This year, the hitherto all-volunteer EHLT hired a part-time executive director, Pete Govert, who is tasked with, among other things, raising enough money to pay for a full-time person. He points out, “People care about things they are connected to. Our primary mission is to create community, a community of caring conservationists.”

This land nut couldn’t agree more.

Cash for Conservation

The Connecticut Land Conservation Council (CLCC) is the glue that holds the state’s 130 disparate land trusts together, fiscally and otherwise. It provides myriad services, including training for board members, legal and educational videos, and regular conferences. Attracting more than 500 people, this year’s main conclave was held in March at Wesleyan University and offered 57 workshops on topics ranging from fundraising and attracting volunteers to best practices and lobbying public officials.

Lobbying state and federal legislators, in fact, is a critical role that CLCC plays, especially focused on increasing (or maintaining existing) state funding for local land conservation as well as increasing DEEP staffing levels, which have declined precipitously because of past budget cuts and recent retirements (from 1,030 in 2013, to 873 in 2020, to 554 today). Even spending that has been approved by the state General Assembly for programs like the Community Investment Act, which supports conservation and affordable housing, can be, and often has been, raided to plug gaps elsewhere in the state budget — with as much as 50 percent of the funds diverted elsewhere.

Funding for the state’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grants (OSWA), a bonding authorization program that is critical to the acquisition of land by local trusts, is proposed to be $10 million a year in the upcoming fiscal 2024 budget (for years 2024 and 2025), less than the $15 million it was for 2023. The grants can cover as much as 60 percent of the cost of acquiring land, with local funds making up the difference.

CLCC has asked for more as well as for the hiring of five more DEEP staff in its depleted land-acquisition division, which oversees the grant applications. “We have been asking for $30 million a year in OSWA bond authorization,” says CLCC Executive Director Amy Paterson. “If we are serious about reaching the state’s land conservation goals, we need to ramp up the investment significantly. We look at $10 million as a start.”

It should be noted that grant funding authorized does not equate to money spent. In 2021, for example, barely $3.7 million in OSWA grants made it out the door, according to DEEP’s annual report.

Shortchanging the environment and the state agency dedicated to protecting it is nothing new for Connecticut. Research by Wildlands & Woodlands, a Harvard-affiliated nonprofit, found that Connecticut spent (federal dollars included) the least amount for land conservation among New England states in the decade ending in 2014, an average of just $3.64 per capita annually — less than a third of what Maine spent. Matters haven’t improved since then.

David Holahan is an award-winning journalist from East Haddam whose work has appeared in Connecticut Magazine since the mid-’80s. Other credits include The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the East Haddam News.