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Department of Environment and Conservation



Land Trusts 101

By Louise Zepp





Although the concept has been used to protect land in New England for over 100 years, land trusts - private nonprofit organizations that work with landowners to conserve land - are relatively new to Tennessee.

Land trusts not only conserve unique natural resources, they also help protect family farms, forests, watersheds, scenic vistas, links to greenways, buffer lands around parks, rare species habitat, historic landscapes and cultural sites. Some land trusts are statewide; many focus on a specific area.

The main tool used to provide this voluntary land protection is the conservation easement (see related sidebar).

Throughout the U.S., local and regional land trusts protect around 5 million acres, according to Andy Zepp, vice president of programs for the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) in Washington, D.C. The Land Trust Alliance was founded in 1982 to provide leadership and information to local, regional and national land trusts.

The acreage protected represents a 135 percent increase above the 2 million acres protected as of 1988, according to the National Land Trust Census conducted in 1998 by the LTA.

Of the approximate 5 million acres protected by land trusts, the LTA reports that about 1 million acres are conserved as park land, wildlife refuges, and green space through partnerships formed by land trusts working with public agencies.

The LTA reports that numbers of land trust organizations have also increased from 743 in 1985 to over 1,200.

Zepp says Tennessee is in the early stages of land trust growth. As of 1998, 24,000 acres in Tennessee had been protected through local and regional land trusts (excluding the Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund). "That number has increased substantially in the last two years," he reports.

Land trusts groups in Tennessee number from about 12 to 20 now and more are being created each day.

Zepp predicts future growth of land trusts across the country.

"Among landowners in the coming years there will be more appreciation of how conservation easements can be used to achieve landowners' goals and protection. I see growth in the Southeast where there are more land trusts hiring their first staff, moving from protecting one piece of land to protecting a region."

Volunteerism is an important component of land trusts. The LTA estimates that about 1 million members support land trusts and more than 50,000 people work as volunteers with land trusts.

The following information outlines the activities of several land trusts in Tennessee.

One of the newest land trusts in the state is The Land Trust for Tennessee in Nashville. Working with a mission to "preserve the unique character of Tennessee’s natural landscapes and historic landscapes and sites for future generations," The Land Trust for Tennessee’s first conservation easements total 460 acres of land in Southwest Williamson County.

Leiper’s Fork businessman, Aubrey Preston, and his mother, Cora Preston, preserved this land. Leiper’s Fork is a Registered National Historic District containing some of the few remaining examples of late 19th century and early 20th century architecture once prevalent in Williamson County villages.

"The commitment of the Preston family to put conservation easements on their properties at both the north entrance of Leiper’s Fork and the southern end near the Natchez Trace Parkway will help maintain the view of an agricultural valley that is rapidly disappearing in our region. The partnerships with the family and good community organizations are what make The Land Trust’s mission possible," stated Jean Nelson, president and executive director of The Land Trust for Tennessee.

Land trusts have created options for landowners, says Eileen Hennessy, program director for The Land Trust for Tennessee.

"Five years ago, you could be in Williamson County and inherit the farm and it might have to be divided and sold to meet taxes. Now you have options to say what you’d want to see on your land in 50 to 100 years.

"This past year, we’ve had an amazing response from the community. Over 200 property owners have contacted us in one year. We haven’t had a lot of press; it’s been word-of-mouth. Tennessee is incredibly rich natural resource-wise. We have a connection to the land. You’d still describe this as a rural state and I think that’s why we’ve had such a strong response in the first year. We have an important resource to not let go from my perspective, letting people have a place to go to breathe deep."

Hennessy adds that while land trusts identifiable to a specific area have been around a while, like Foothills Land Conservancy and Tennessee River Gorge Trust, broad-based land trusts like The Land Trust for Tennessee are just beginning to proliferate in this area.

Although the group’s charter is statewide, current focus for The Land Trust for Tennessee is the Middle Tennessee region. "This is a fast-growth area and the development pressures are strong," Nelson comments. The organization "has had approaches from 25 counties and we’re doing our best to help all of them."

The Land Trust for Tennessee has 50 to 70 active volunteers, Nelson says, ranging from landscape architects, lawyers doing pro-bono work, financial planners, biologists and real estate businesspeople. A real estate volunteer organized a meeting with real estate people in Williamson County and surrounding counties to help educate them about land trusts as an option.

Nelson and Hennessy speak at civic clubs and neighborhood meetings to help educate the public about The Land Trust for Tennessee.

For more information, contact The Land Trust for Tennessee, P.O. Box 23473, Nashville, TN 37203. The phone number is 615-244-5263 and the Web address is:

The Giles County Farmland Preservation Trust in Pulaski is a new organization with a mission of helping preserve farmland for future generations.

The group has just received its non-profit status.

Goals for the group in its early stages include developing membership; exploring opportunities for conservation education; planning to manage and monitor 500 acres in year one; forming committees and developing funds to operate.

The trust does not yet hold conservation easements, but "there are three or four people very interested, says James Taylor, of the Giles County Agricultural Extension Service who is helping the group get off the ground. "One interested landowner has about 500 acres and wants to keep it in farmland for generations to come."

Giles County has 1,318 farms totaling 162,000 acres, Taylor says. The county includes 25 Century Farms, designated as such because they have been held in the same family for at least 100 years.

In Giles County, the number of acres in cropland and pasture has decreased over the past eight years by about 9,000 acres, according to a 1997 Agricultural Census prepared under the direction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

"There are beautiful sites here and we know we won’t prevent a road or a pipeline from coming through but we want to preserve our farmland for future generations," Taylor explains. "Tennessee lost 7,000 farms during the years 1990-1996.

"Through the land trust, a landowner can set aside whatever land he wants to for a house or whatever. There are some tax advantages in the difference between what land value is as real estate and land value as farmland," says Taylor.

For information on the Giles County Farmland Preservation Trust, write to Margaret Price at 2504 Little Dry Creek Road, Pulaski, TN 38478, or call Price at 931-363-6339 in the evenings. Call James Taylor at 931-363-3523 during daily business hours.

The Swan Conservation Trust in Summertown is focused on Big Swan Creek headwaters protection and is most active in Lewis, Lawrence, Wayne, Hickman and Perry counties.

The Swan Trust uses both conservation easements and purchases land in fee simple to protect 2,808 acres currently.

The trust owns five acres of old growth poplar in Hickman County that was donated by Maury Miller III, says Joan Thomas, project director.

Since 1997, Swan has held an easement on 22 acres in Perry County comprised of a steep forest of mixed hardwood. "It's a forever wild easement where nothing can be altered. It has an existing cabin and pond on two acres but the balance is forever wild," Thomas explains.

Swan Conservation Trust has purchased two tracts on the headwaters of Big Swan Creek totaling 315 acres. "We're about to close on a third tract of 59 acres which makes 374 acres."

On the headwaters of the Big Bigby in Lewis County, Swan owns 100 acres comprised of one tract Swan purchased and two that were donated.

Staffed by volunteers, the Swan Conservation Trust has 300 members. Members pay a $25 annual fee. Thomas reports that Swan also has a monthly pledge system. Pledge payments are 100 percent earmarked for making land payments. Pledges currently range in the $5 to $60 a month amounts and there are 45 "pledgers," Thomas says. The organization's volunteers write grants to help pay for land.

Awareness of land trusts has raised incredibly in the last couple of years, Thomas observes. "Landowners have become more informed. People now know what a conservation easement is."

Swan Conservation Trust plans monthly outings. On September 23, a hike and campout along the Big Swan Creek headwaters is scheduled. Reservations are recommended. Call 931-964-4402 for information or write to: Swan Conservation P.O. Box 162, Summertown, TN 38483. The e-mail address is:

Protecting more than 8,200 acres to date "of the unique ecological, agricultural and scenic resources in of East Tennessee," Foothills Land Conservancy in Maryville is raising $2 million to purchase Smith Bend, a 2,500-acre site important for Sandhill Cranes and waterfowl. Smith Bend is located 12 miles upstream from Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge on the Tennessee River in Rhea County. The organization is also completing conservation easements in Blount and Sevier Counties.

Foothills Land Conservancy's first buffer zone project was raising $1.2 million in 1995 to purchase 4,700 acres threatened with commercial development along the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to Randy Brown, executive director, more than 3,500 individuals, businesses, outdoor and civic groups and foundations contributed to the project. Foothills Land Conservancy gave 400 acres along Abrams Creek to the National Park Service. The remaining 4,300 acres were donated to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to establish the first unit of the Foothills Wildlife Management Area.

Future long range plans call for conserving more units along the northern boundary of the GSMNP which will provide feeding grounds for black bears and other wildlife, as well as providing public space for hiking, biking, bird watching, hunting and camping.

In 1997, Foothills completed its second buffer zone project and raised more than $500,000 to purchase an additional 1,516 acres adjoining the Foothills Wildlife Management Area.

Membership has grown. "We had 80 members when I was hired in 1992 and now we have 2,000," Brown reports.

Foothills was founded in 1985 and opened an office with full-time staff in 1992.

For information, contact Foothills Land Conservancy, 614 Sevierville Road, Maryville, TN 37804; 865-681-8326. The Web address is:

Chattanooga's Tennessee River Gorge Trust organization protects 14,500 acres of the 26,000-acre Tennessee River Gorge, which spans from Chattanooga's Williams Island to Highway 41 in Marion County.

Of the protected acreage, 5,000 acres are directly owned; 102 acres are in conservation easements; and 491 acres are leased from the state. "The remainder is in cooperative management agreements with TVA, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Department of Agriculture, says Jim Brown, executive director. "Public and private partnerships are the only way to make it happen," Brown comments.

Tennessee River Gorge Trust has 900 members. Membership is $25 per year. The trust was formed in 1982, Brown says, by "housewives and husbands and a local park ranger who connected with The Nature Conservancy."

"We didn't know land trusts existed then," Brown reflect, "and The Nature Conservancy got us on our feet."

Two summer interns from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga join the Tennessee River Gorge Trust's staff of four full-time employees. Interns are working on a turtle survey and a mammal survey.

"You have to have full-time people when you are holding land. We have good volunteers; about 30 people on a regular basis are stewardship volunteers and all of the 32 board members are volunteers," Brown explains.

At a biological field station, the trust partners with other groups to present conservation education. The Tennessee Aquarium was a partner with the trust for a butterfly count in this summer. "We provide the place and they lead the program," Brown says.

Plans are underway to start a new program with UTC to set up a permanent monitoring system which "we hope will become an Earthwatch site." Plans include an inventory of species in the gorge. The inventory will create a baseline for monitoring. "We'll look at how an urban area, as it grows, affects an open space. It will be a laboratory people will take notice of all over the world."

Tennessee River Gorge Trust can be reached at 25 Cherokee Blvd., Suite 104, Chattanooga, TN 37405, or by calling 423-266-0314. The e-mail address is:


Wolf River Conservancy in Memphis has participated in protecting 1,200 acres along the Wolf River. in Memphis has participated in protecting 1,200 acres along the Wolf River.

"We don't shell out all the money and we hold very little property: 200 acres in our name," explains Larry Smith, executive director. "We have easements on 500 acres, some privately held and not open to the public which I monitor.

"If we can partner, we do." Smith says. "We give it to agencies we can trust like Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency; the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and so on. If we keep it, we monitor it."

Joining Smith on staff is Eileen Segal, a part-time development director. The organization, which dates to 1985, was totally volunteer-based until 1997 when Smith joined.

The conservancy has moved forward on three items, Smith says: acquisition, education and advocacy.

"We've promoted land donation and conservation easements. People come to us, usually. We received 185 acres that way when someone gave us the last little bit of a 600-acre three-generation family farm. It was donated and we took an easement on it and the Chickasaw Basin Authority holds the title."

Smith works with school groups offering a slide show he presents in schools using the Wolf River as an example. An outdoor classroom program, offered at Lucius Burch Natural Area at Shelby Farms; Ghost River State Natural Area in La Grange; and at Moscow on the Wolf River Bridge, gives students the chance to get wet. The sites are "bus-capable places with access to rivers, wetlands and marsh areas where you can look at critters and the water." Smith helps teachers organize and helps them learn to conduct the outdoor classroom themselves. Agencies like TWRA have come and presented educational programs.

"Typically, I would do this because I like wading into the swamp with a net and I'll get the kids in there. We clear it first if they are going to get wet." Smith says students were thrilled to find frogs in all stages of development and a Water Siren, which is a cross between a salamander and a frog with giant gills. It's a really cool creature about three inches long.

"It's my hope that the experience and fun along the Wolf River will come to mind to these kids later and that we've planted seeds of interest with them in the community."

Wolf River Conservancy's address is: P.O. Box 11031, Memphis, TN 38111-0031. Call 901-452-6500 for more information. The e-mail address is:

What is a Conservation Easement?

A conservation easement is a legal agreement made by a landowner to voluntarily restrict the kind and amount of development that will take place on a piece of property.

Landowners continue to own land and may sell the land or leave it to heirs, but future owners must abide by the easement terms. Land trusts monitor the property.

Each easement is designed for the owners' particular property and needs. Farming, building of houses or agricultural structures, timber management and harvest might be outlined in a particular easement. Some easements might apply to a portion of a property and not its entirety.

Since conservation easements are held in perpetuity, landowners know that their land will remain as designated forever, benefiting future generations. There are also federal tax benefits derived from conservation easements.

Andy Zepp, vice president of programs for the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C., says he's seen a trend nationally in the increased use of conservation easements.

"There's a 135 percent increase in protected acreage and a 378 percent increase in conservation easements from 1988-1998."

Other Land Trust/Related Organizations

Lula Lake Land Trust
300 High Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403

North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy
P.O. Box 358
Hixson, TN 37343

Sequatchie Valley Institute at Moonshadow
Route 1, Box 304
Whitwell, TN 37397

South Cumberland Regional Land TrustP.O. Box 615
Monteagle, TN 37356

Tennessee Land Trust
1510 Bailey Morrison Drive
Somerville, TN 38068

Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation
2704 12th Ave. South
Nashville, TN 37204

Woodland Community Land Trust
Roses Creek Road
Clairfield, TN 37715-9601

Land Trust Alliance
1331 H Street NW, Suite 400
Washington, D.C. 20005

Trust For Public Land
Southeast Regional Office
306 North Monroe
Tallahassee, FL 32301

Updated September 1, 2000; Send comments to Department of Environment and Conservation.

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