by Crystal Simons
The days are longer and lighter now that summertime has come to Sonoma County. It’s officially “field season” — the time of year when stewardship staff pull on work boots and set an automatic email reply that reads something like: “Thank you for your email. I’m out of the office for the next two days conducting field work. For immediate needs, please contact so and so...” Translated, what the auto-reply really means is: “Thanks for emailing me, but I’m out on a property getting muddy, identifying flowers, saving fish, mounting wildlife cameras, avoiding poison oak, eating soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, running out of sunscreen, bonding with like-minded environmentalists, landowners and schoolchildren, clearing roads, documenting stream conditions, saving land … and loving every second of it. Don’t expect a response for at least a couple of days because I’m blissed out on the fact that my job takes me outside and I’m probably not going to look at the computer today.”
Sonoma Land Trust has different kinds of field days. Some are recreational and educational; others are workdays spent pulling invasive weeds. In the conservation easement program, field days are primarily for conservation monitoring.
Properties protected by conservation easements are unique. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and Sonoma Land Trust (or any organization qualified to be an easement holder) that keeps the property in private ownership while protecting key resources.
A conservation easement is a flexible and legally binding tool that is tailored for each property based on the common preservation goals of the original landowner and the Land Trust. The agreement restricts specific uses of a property into the future … forever. For example, a conservation easement might prohibit subdivision, restrict the location of new buildings or prevent expansion of an existing use, like a vineyard or timber mill.
The conservation easement is recorded with the County in the form of a grant deed and is binding on current and future owners of the property in perpetuity. Yes, that’s right … forever. In return, along with the satisfaction and security that their often beloved, resource-rich land will be protected, landowners may be eligible to receive tax benefits for protecting their land. Sonoma Land Trust has committed to monitoring and enforcing 46 unique conservation easements on diverse properties across Sonoma County. No two conservation easements — or properties — are alike.
The conservation monitoring field work starts with a read-through of the easement in order to clearly understand which resources are being protected on a particular property and which human activities are and are not allowed. We monitor for four primary reasons:
At the first photo station, we take any necessary photos, make notes about what we observe and describe any anthropogenic or naturally-caused changes. These observations could be a new shed, a landslide or a tree that might have fallen across a road. We note the cardinal direction in which the photo was taken, assign it a number and mark its location on the field map. Back in the office, our GPS data will confirm the photo location with greater accuracy, but it is a test of skill when one can identify the photo station with graphite on paper. Indeed, analog skills are a source of pride in our increasingly digital world.
After touring the conservation easement property and documenting our observations through photographs, notes and sketches on the field map, we return to the vehicles, thirsty yet satisfied, after a few hours spent offline. We usually bring home souvenirs: a selfie from the ridgeline, a scrape from the scramble out of the creek, and even the occasional unwelcome tick. If anything, a monitoring partner is helpful for finding these little pests that so eagerly hitch a free ride.
The monitoring day is done, but the monitoring reporting has yet to begin. In the coming days, the lead monitor will upload the data collected onto their computer, save the digital photograph and GPS files, create a final monitoring map, write a narrative, type up the field notes and finalize documentation of the day’s observations. The final report is reviewed by staff and filed — a scanned version into our digital files and the printed original to a fire-safe storage facility called “Fort Docs” — truly a fortress of bankers boxes, full of real, tangible original documents.
When the hours are counted, it is clear that more time is spent in front of the glowing screen than under the swaying tree tops. The days in the field remind us why we choose to work in conservation. Conservation easement stewardship work is full of purpose and intent, but being on the land (literally) is what it’s all about.
Crystal Simons is Sonoma Land Trust’s Conservation Easement Program Manager. She spends most of her time on the computer, interpreting legal conservation language, writing letters to landowners and volunteer monitors, creating maps of protected properties and dreaming of days in the field — even the rainy ones.
If you or someone you know might be interested in volunteering as a conservation monitor with Sonoma Land Trust, click here.
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.