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Land Trusts Benefit Birds

Local land trusts increasingly benefit bird habitats, creating a place for birds and birders alike.

Peter Stangel, Ph.D.
Posted: July 1, 2013, 4:00 p.m. PDT

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When I dream about birding, my mind travels far. It wanders to Cape May, New Jersey, in the fall, when raptors battle warblers for my attention; to the Platte River in Nebraska, when thousands of Sandhill Cranes staging for their migration north make blustery March winds feel like gentle breezes; and to the Texas coast in mid-April when the tropical migrants rejoin us Yanks for the summer nesting season.
In reality, the vast majority of my birding occurs locally at personal hotspots just a few minutes from the house. Growing up in eastern Massachusetts, I often visited Rockport’s Halibut Point State Park, which juts into the Atlantic and puts hardy late-fall birders close enough to migrating flocks of sea ducks to pick out the different scoters: Black, White-winged and Surf. The rocky shoreline also might offer Harlequin Ducks and Common Eiders.

While living in Atlanta, I birded the shoreline of the Chattahoochee River, with the riparian vegetation always reliable for nesting Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers – and sometimes a Prothonotary. Now living in South Carolina, I bike as often as possible to Boyd Pond Park in Aiken. The nature trail includes a short bridge that crosses a swampy area remarkably reliable for Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-shouldered Hawks.

red-shouldered hawk
One joy of making a financial contribution to a land trust is that it’s easy to see the impact of your donation. It’s right there in the forests, fields and wetlands protected with your support, so birds like this red-shouldered hawk have a place to call home.
Although unique, each of these favorite spots shares two important traits: great birding and protection via a land trust.

Land What?
Although many birders are just now learning about land trusts, these organizations play a critical role protecting wildlife habitat. They preserve the natural views that we all enjoy and also ensure that many of nature’s services – such as clean water, flood protection and carbon sequestration – remain intact.
Land Trust Alliance, which works nationally, estimates that these organizations have protected 37 million acres. That’s a lot of bird habitat and a lot of opportunity to go birding. Although bird conservation usually is not a main priority for land obtained by trusts, birds and wildlife benefit from many of their protection activities.
In a nutshell, a land trust is a nonprofit organization that works to conserve land through simple purchase of property or through conservation easements. Land trusts also accept gifts of land from individuals, governments or other entities, and the trusts might serve as stewards in maintaining and enhancing the properties.

An estimated 1,700 land trusts in the United States claim close to 2 million members. Land trusts began more than 100 years ago, typically founded at the local level by people – like you and me – who want to see natural resources protected and, where appropriate, open to the public.

Many Ways
In 1950, close to 50 land trusts existed in 26 states. Today’s 1,700 trusts operate in all 50 states. The recent growth in the number of land trusts likely stems from the growing interest in protecting lands. There is no question in my mind, however, that the range of conservation strategies used by land trusts has played an important role.

One popular tactic involves easements. Land Trust Alliance describes an easement as a "voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits the use of the land in order to protect its conservation values.”

Easements take many shapes and can be a powerful conservation incentive for even small property owners.
For example, you might give up the right to develop land for home sites while retaining the right to manage timber in a sustainable fashion. The legal restrictions apply to future owners of the land, and the trust or agency holding the easement ensures that its terms are observed.

Landowners may donate the easement or in some cases sell it. If an easement meets federal tax code requirements, it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable contribution.

Easements have proven particularly appealing to ranchers and farmers who wish to retain ownership of the land but need financial incentives to keep the property in the family. By removing the land’s development potential, the market value falls, reducing estate taxes.

Land Trust Alliance estimates that from 2000 through 2005, conservation easements protected more than 6 million acres. Not all the land benefits birds or is open to the public for birding, but much of it is.

Land Trust Alliance, which works nationally, estimates that these organizations have protected 37 million acres. That’s a lot of bird habitat and a lot of opportunity to go birding.

Support & Trust
All land trusts welcome donations. One joy of making a financial contribution to a land trust is that it’s easy to see the impact of your donation. It’s right there in the forests, fields and wetlands protected with your support.

Many trusts encourage volunteer activities, which range from making or clearing trails to leading tours. Most trusts welcome birders willing to lead trips, conduct surveys or create bird lists.

Consider adding local land trusts into your Christmas Bird Count area or making them part of a Breeding Bird Survey. The data you collect will help the property owners better manage the land for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.

I find that many trust-protected lands are "underbirded.” For me, there’s something exciting about exploring on a property undiscovered by fellow birders. Will I find a habitat unusual for the region? Maybe I’ll uncover a species considered rare for the area or a geographic feature that funnels songbirds during migration.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, in recent years, about 2 million acres of open space has been lost to development annually. That’s fewer places for birds to live and fewer places for us to bird.

Land trusts can’t solve all of our conservation challenges, but they offer one way to preserve the birds’ habitat.

For More Information ...
Land Trust Alliance, Washington D.C.: 202-638-4725, The website provides a list of regional offices and a Quick Link to find land trusts near you.

Excerpt from WildBird November/December 2009 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird, click here.

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