by Bob Neale
Where do we find inspiration? Often, after a hard day or with a problem to solve, I wander outdoors to find solace and inspiration in Mother Nature. Other times, I turn to human nature for inspiration. A couple of weeks ago, the California Council of Land Trusts (CCLT) held its annual California Land Conservation Conference in Los Angeles. For three days, staff and volunteers from land trusts and land conservation agencies from all over the state convened to share information, network in the hallways and listen to leaders and innovators in our community. The goal here was to inspire and be inspired, because our work and our passion is about more than the valley oaks and steelhead creeks — it’s about the people and communities that we love as well.
I love this conference. I get to see people I’ve worked with from all over the state. We have the kinds of conversations that we can’t seem to find the time for back in the office: "How’s that project going?” "Whatever happened with that problem you were having?” and, most importantly, “I’ve got this great idea!” Combine that camaraderie with presentations of successes, lessons learned and cutting-edge ideas (with a healthy dose of coffee) to get a tangible buzz that echoes in the rooms, through the hallways and out into the courtyards. There’s no better cure for cynicism than being surrounded by several hundred like-minded people dedicated to making something good happen in the world. It’s like a salve for 9 to 5 blues!
Most of us in Sonoma County don’t often associate Los Angeles with land conservation. True enough, there are A LOT of people, cars and concrete down there. There is a growing realization that restoring natural areas is critical for the wellbeing of Angelenos, especially for underserved populations far from any kind of nature and its associated benefits. Los Angeles is big, so we heard some big ideas, like restoring the Los Angeles River: a multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar initiative to bring back natural areas, remove concrete in some areas, provide trails and greenways, and help reduce the impacts of water pollution. Big ideas! It’s inspiring to hear these stories — it makes you want to believe!
We heard about the California Wellness Foundation, an organization with millions of dollars in grants to develop parks and public spaces to address some of the inequalities that poorer communities have in accessing nature — inequalities that have a direct effect on the health of children and adults alike. A large part of the conference was focused on these issues and a related effort by CCLT called the Conservation Horizons Initiative. This effort challenges land trusts across the state to look into the future and embrace how our state and community are changing — to deepen our mission and commitment so that our conservation work stays relevant and will serve our communities into the distant future. Ways for us to meet these challenges include engaging our audience in new ways, serving more of our population (95 percent of which lives in urban areas or urban clusters!) and helping our state combat climate change. These obstacles are daunting, but hanging out with this amazing group of people for three days was awe-inspiring and motivating!
In addition to the plenary presentation and big picture ideas, we had a day of workshops, divided into broad topics like Land Stewardship, Public Policy and Funding, Engaging with Your Community, and more. Each of these areas had three to five shorter, more nuts-and-bolts type presentations where we could learn about innovations around the day-to-day parts of work. It is so great when colleagues share their learned lessons: not just the successes, but the failures, the things that we would do differently the next time around. That openness and honesty moves us all forward together — we know our work is hard and full of failures. After all, it is failure that we learn from. It is failure that gives us wisdom and makes us strong and resilient. It takes a lot of courage to share lessons learned with a crowd in order to help them be more successful.
A couple of my favorite activities were the conservation law forum and the Northern California regional gathering. The law forum is a great place to geek out over the intricacies of conservation easements and the legal aspects of our land trust work. We hold more than 43 conservation easements at Sonoma Land Trust, so it is very important to stay up on court decisions, what the IRS is thinking, and how our standards and practices (our operating guidelines, in a sense) are evolving based on these changes. The topics can be dry (though to me, they’re usually interesting), yet the information is critical to help SLT stay on top of our game.
At the Northern California regional gathering, colleagues from Sonoma to Humboldt to Siskiyou and beyond got together and shared our thoughts on what we are currently up to, what we are hearing and what the future holds. We discussed how we might work together regionally on drought issues, work with smaller rural communities to help keep more water in the creeks, and how to make our forests more resilient to the effects of climate changes and recover from the ravages of overuse. Again, here were big problems, big ideas, inspiration and a strong belief that by working together, we are making the world a better place for ourselves and for future generations.
I always come back from these conferences charged up. After four years of drought and the challenges that brought to the natural and agricultural lands we manage, I needed that charge just like we needed the rains that finally came. As the rains watered our landscape, the California Land Conservation Conference refreshed my attitude. What a great group of people I get to work with every day. Woo-hoo! I believe!
Bob Neale is SLT's stewardship director.
Photos by Riverview Media Photography.
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.