by Bob Neale
I often feel a sense of closure as I pin a new calendar to my office wall (my choice this year: “Trout of North America”). One busy year has just ended and there’s a whole new year full of challenges to come. At Sonoma Land Trust, our team plans out the year in advance, thinking and projecting and balancing resources and opportunities. But in the conservation world, much of our work involves looking much further and trying to plan ahead to protect the land forever. Thinking about forever changes the feel of a single year and reminds us that a whole year’s work is just one small step towards much bigger goals, the goals that Sonoma Land Trust and our community share and work toward together.
If we think about one year as a single step, with many steps needed to get from one place to another, we can remind ourselves that we cannot do the work alone: We take these steps together. Sometimes we must walk side by side and share the load, and sometimes we must pass the baton to our teammates to continue onward. When I think of all that Sonoma Land Trust accomplished in 2015, I’m very thankful and grateful for those who set the foundation for our work, who helped us accomplish so much and who will help in our ongoing efforts to protect the land forever.
Often, when people think of conservation lands, they think of public parks and wildlife refuges, of hiking trails, flocks of shorebirds and deer browsing at the edge of the campground. Yet there is a huge conservation effort that goes on within Sonoma County, California and across the nation — an effort to permanently protect the wild and the fragile that live on lands under private ownership, on those millions of acres of wild land, ranches and forest that are woven in amongst our public and residential lands. The vast majority of the acreage in Sonoma County is privately owned. To date, we have collectively protected about 200,000 of the roughly 1,000,000 acres of land in Sonoma County. In order to protect and restore the remaining critical natural and agricultural lands in the county, we need to work with our private landowners — not just in terms of trying to buy land from willing sellers, but working on how we can collectively manage and restore our lands to keep our water clean, our food healthy and our natural systems thriving.
Most of the work Sonoma Land Trust does with private landowners is in the form of conservation easements. A conservation easement is a way to permanently restrict the kind of activities that can occur on a property in order to protect important natural, cultural and agricultural resources. When land is protected by a conservation easement, the landowner still owns the land, but has donated or sold certain rights, such as the right to build more houses or clear vegetation; or they add important conditions, such as the requirement to harvest timber in a sustainable manner, for example.
Conservation easements are a collaboration that marries the vision of the landowner, who loves the land that they have owned (sometimes for generations)with those of the Land Trust, which understands how that piece of land fits into the matrix of natural lands that need to remain protected and connected. Every conservation easement is different because every piece of land and the owner’s dreams for it are different. Once a conservation easement is put in place, we promise to maintain forever the terms of the legal document and, thus, the vision of the landowner. It is a big commitment on everyone’s part.
As important as conservation easements are, we realize that we can’t protect all the acres in the county in this way. So Sonoma Land Trust and our partners, like the Resource Conservation Districts, Students and Teachers Protecting A Watershed (STRAW), the California Coastal Conservancy and others, work together to find new ways to support ranchers, farmers, foresters and rural landowners in managing their land and protecting its natural resource values in the face of a rapidly changing world.
This is our collective challenge for the decades to come: to recreate a land ethic that values the connection between how we own land and how we manage our lands, and how our lands support and nurture us, individually and as a society. We must work together to create a thriving natural, agricultural and cultural place: to restore our forests and creeks, protect our farmland and provide healthy places for our children to grow.
Here in Sonoma County, the land is so much a part of our identity. We live here to be surrounded by land — surrounded by the people who love it, value it and care for it for us, our neighbors and for the generations to come. Happy New Year, everyone!
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.