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Trustworthy LANDS

Community land trusts are expanding explosively and facing growing complexities with few resources. A pilot UVM program is putting students in position to help.

By Joshua Brown Article published August 28, 2007

LANDS Program
Got LANDS? Though the summer was filled with hard work, student interns found time for silliness. Program co-leader and field naturalist James Barnes goes eyeball-to-camera in a cornfield owned by the Richmond Land Trust while intern Jessica DeBiasio laughs. (Photo: Joshua Brown) See more photos of the LANDS interns.

In a cornfield by the Winooski River, just south of the Richmond exit on Interstate 89, Jessica DeBiasio ’07 is giving a tour of her backpack. Nine other UVM students sit sweating in the shade, swatting mosquitoes. A wooden sign along nearby Johnnie Brook Road reads “Rochford-DelBianco Preserve — Richmond Land Trust.”

DeBiasio holds up a device that looks like an outsized cell phone. It’s a GPS satellite receiver that plots locations to an on-screen map. Next, she holds up a small flipbook. “The Nature Conservancy’s guide to invasive plants in Vermont,” she says. Then out comes a well-thumbed book, Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, a guide to the state’s natural communities. Notepads, a compass, a paper map showing the property boundary around the cornfield, a metal auger for taking soil samples and a tube of bug spray complete the tour.

With these tools, this group of undergraduates — the first interns in the LANDS program, an experimental partnership between UVM and the Student Conservation Association, funded by the Northeastern States Research Cooperative and the High Meadows Fund — are trying to solve a problem that faces land trusts across the nation. “They realize: OK, we own this land,” explains James Barnes, a graduate student co-leading the program, “Now what?”

'A different game'
It’s a problem born of success. Land trusts are booming. In 1950, there were 53 land trusts in the United States. In 2005, there were 1,667 land trusts, the Land Trust Alliance reports. From 2000 to 2005, the total acres conserved by land trusts increased by 54 percent to 37 million acres. In these same five years, local and state land trusts more than tripled their pace of land conservation. Many of these, like the Richmond Land Trust, are small, volunteer-run organizations intent on saving special places in their towns — natural areas, wildlife corridors, wetlands, farms, woodlots and historic sites.

But acquiring land is a different game than managing it. And satisfying the complex monitoring requirements of easements — an increasingly popular form of land protection in which a “bundle” of development rights are sold to a land trust, but not full ownership — only adds to the challenge.

“Often land trusts don’t know much about a parcel or have the staff or funds or skills to monitor it, to make a plan for how to use it, to know the threats — like invasive species or illegal logging — to do the annual checks, to really get a handle on what they have and how they’d like to manage it,” Barnes says. “We think students can help them.”

Kevin Case, a UVM graduate alumnus, agrees. As the Northeast Conservation Manager for the Land Trust Alliance, he sees many land trusts in the region trying to make a transition from being land buyers to land stewards. “What you’re seeing is small, focused land trusts,” he says, “really needing the support and the knowledge that this program is bringing.”

And small towns face the same challenge. Take Shelburne. Here, the LANDS interns conducted an assessment of the LaPlatte Nature Park and developed a report for the town’s conservation committee. “Municipalities often have few funds available for natural resources stewardship,” notes Sean MacFaden, a member of the committee and a UVM research specialist. “We were pleased to be part of an educational program that, at no cost to the town, would provide much-needed field data.”

“The final product is very impressive,” he says. “It provides detailed resource descriptions, maps, photographs, and realistic prescriptions for managing trails, invasive plants, streambank erosion and grassland bird habitat.”

College of the corn
To get ready, the LANDS interns spent June training in some fundamental tasks of land stewardship — like finding boundaries, identifying plants and animals, tracing trails, using mapping software and writing site descriptions. Throughout July, they put these skills to the test, first for the Jericho-Underhill Land Trust, then Shelburne, and, finally, through an assessment of four preserves for the Richmond Land Trust.

Including this cornfield. Delia Delongchamp, the other graduate student leading the program, points across the sea of green stalks to where trees rise up along the edge of the river. “That’s one of the remnant silver-maple ostrich-fern natural communities left in Chittenden County,” she says, and, though it’s only a half-acre of the whole parcel, “that’s why they have this particular area protected. They lease this field to a farmer, which brings in some income and keeps it as open space, but they haven’t decided what to do next.”

So the Richmond Land Trust’s board asked the LANDS interns to help them consider their options. “People use this place to cross-country ski. It’s a popular fishing spot. It could have a boat access,” Delongchamp says, as two interns wade toward us through the tall plants, “there’s a lot of potential here.” But the students’ final report was bleak about the rampage of invasive plants there, including Bishop’s Weed that “completely blankets the forest floor, crowding out natural floodplain species,” they wrote.

New needs, new directions
With the onslaught of not just exotic species, but rapid land development, climate change, and a host of other ecological problems, land trusts are being pushed to be more sophisticated. “Land trusts need to get into the sciences end of conservation more,” says Deane Wang, a professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, who led the creation of the LANDS program in collaboration with his friend, Flip Hagood, a vice-president for the Student Conservation Association. “That’s where conservation is headed.”

And at the same time, land trusts are being pushed to be more professional. The national Land Trust Alliance is starting to develop an accreditation system for land trusts, and the IRS is taking a tougher look at the appraisals and methods of land trusts. Which means better studies, more reports, closer tabs.

But as they’re pushed to improve, and as their property portfolios grow, many land trusts wrestle with the obdurate fact that budgets and staff (if they have staff at all) remain small.

All of which bodes well for the LANDS program. Though Deane Wang is sober about the challenge of making the economics of the program work — once it expands beyond this Rubenstein School-sponsored pilot phase — the SCA’s Flip Hagood, pointing to his organization’s 50 years of experience in connecting student interns to conservation organizations, sees a marketable niche. “I’ve already challenged the dean (Don DeHayes) to expand” the program, he says at the LANDS final public presentation several weeks after the cornfield tour, “to double the number of students next year.”

And it looks good for the LANDS interns too. Though all had taken relevant courses before this summer, like forestry or environmental studies, “there are very few graduates who know a lot about private land conservation, reading easements, the actual stuff you do on the ground when you work in a land trust,” Barnes says. “You don’t take classes in that. LANDS provides this training ground, and, we think, will give these guys an edge in the job market.”


See more photos of the LANDS interns on the view's Flickr page.