What is a Land Trust, Anyway?

I’m gearing up for my big TILTKids Camp this weekend (please don’t rain, please don’t rain) – will recap next week. In the meantime, below is an article I wrote back in June for Thousand Islands Life, explaining what a Land Trust actually is (because I certainly didn’t know before I started working for one):

What is the Land Trust anyway?

I’ve only been working with the Thousand Islands Land Trust (TILT) for a little over a year, but in that short time I feel I’ve become completely re-educated about the benefits of land conservation. And as a large part of my job involves interacting with people along the River, I’ve begun to realize that I’m not the only one who is unfamiliar with what a land trust actually does, and how it benefits the community as a whole.

In general, land trusts conserve land. More specifically, TILT “works to conserve the natural beauty, wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities of the 1000 Islands region.”

Recreational Opportunities – Most Tangible

Let’s start with recreational opportunities, since that’s the most tangible benefit. The availability of untouched open space for hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, birding, kayaking and canoeing is one of the major draws of the 1000 Islands region – and all are activities that the public can enjoy on many of TILT’s preserves.

Explore on your own, or sign your family up for an organized outing. Our popular TILTreks & Talks and KidsTreks run all season and offer participants the chance to “live, learn and conserve” in the 1000 Islands. Best of all, the majority of TILT’s treks are free and open to the public, with a few being reserved for members only.

An exciting addition to our treks lineup this year is TILTKids Camp, which is scheduled for the last weekend in July. For the past two summers, signups for the KidsTreks filled to capacity.  It’s safe to say that there is a real demand for this kind of outdoor, family fun along the River! TILTKids Camp is part of a brand new membership program that includes special goodies for the kids – exclusive access to a “kids website”, newsletter and admission to camp. This year’s TILTKids Camp is titled “Looking Closer,” with Day 1 focused on kids investigating the many plants, trees, animals and insects that call TILT’s Zenda Farm Preserve home. On Day 2, we will document these discoveries in a variety of ways.

 

 

Speaking of the Zenda Farm Preserve, many will recognize it as the location for TILT’s annual Community Picnic in June. It is a wonderful way for TILT to connect with the community on one of our “Signature Preserves” – a signature preserve embodies every aspect of TILT’s mission: wildlife, wildlife habitat, natural beauty and recreational opportunities. Zenda Farm Preserve is an outstanding example of the importance of public open space in the community.

Hiking, Biking and Cross-Country Skiing

In addition to our TILTreks & Talks and community events, TILT  manages over 45 miles of hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing trails that are open to the public year-round. Enjoy a quiet hike through nature on TILT’s Macsherry Trail at Crooked Creek Preserve, Grindstone Island Nature Trail, and/or the newly constructed Zenda Farm Walking Trail. For bike enthusiasts, TILT’s 27-mile Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail will take you through the historic inland towns of northern New York. And stay tuned as we break ground on the new Otter Creek Nature Trail, located just outside the Village of Alexandria Bay!

Wildlife Habitats

This brings us back to another benefit of land conservation: the protection of wildlife habitats. For example, many of our preserves include a mix of wetlands, wood lands, shrub lands and grasslands, all of which are necessary for wildlife to thrive.

Our native grassland habitat is disappearing faster than almost any other type of wildlife habitat, and Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties provide much of what remains in the eastern United States. Birds like the Eastern Meadowlark, the Savannah Sparrow and Bobolink rely on open grasslands for nesting and foraging. Today, TILT owns and manages over 1,500 acres of grasslands for threatened and endangered bird species. TILT works closely with NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service to implement best land management practices.

 

Among TILT’s protected bird habitat is the Heineman Family Preserve Songbird Forest, located along TILT’s Grindstone Island Nature Trail which runs between Canoe and Picnic Point State Parks. It is a mature forest, containing a thick, leafy canopy that serves as the ideal breeding ground for Neotropical migrant songbirds, like the Cerulean warbler.

Managing the land

Stewardship of the land is TILT’s primary responsibility. TILT’s stewardship staff, including summer land stewards (local college students employed for the summer) and volunteers, monitor, manage and maintain our preserves and easements. Land stewards monitor the threat of invasive species  on all  TILT preserves, and implement management plans to encourage the growth of native species. The more native plant species that are growing, the more native insect, bird and animal species are attracted to the area! Add that together and you have a healthy ecosystem ideal for thriving wildlife!

Managing wetlands

Maintaining wildlife habitats also have economic benefits for the region. It’s no secret that the 1000 Islands region possesses top-quality sport fishing opportunities. Enthusiasts travel great distances to fish for trophy bass, northern pike and muskellunge that populate the St. Lawrence and its various creeks and tributaries.

Two of the most popular tributaries for sport fishing are located along TILT’s Crooked Creek Preserve and our newly acquired Otter Creek Preserve. Both are Class I wetlands, which are vitally important to the St. Lawrence River because of their ability to store and filter water, improve water quality, provide habitat for birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and act as nurseries for a variety of our fish species. The wetland areas of the Otter Creek Preserve in particular are in close proximity to known muskellunge spawning grounds. The muskellunge is a declining sport fish species in the region, and protecting wetland habitats, like the Otter Creek Preserve, is critical for its survival, as well as the preservation of our river heritage!

Regional Economics

While we’re on the subject of regional economics, let’s explore another benefit of land conservation: maintaining natural beauty. As we all know, the 1000 Islands region is a popular summer destination for tourists, and many are drawn to the area specifically for the breathtaking vistas available at every turn. Of course, while they’re in town, they frequent the local hotels, restaurants and other businesses that rely heavily on revenue from the busy summer months.  And the conservation of natural beauty is not only for tourists. Those of us who live, work and play here year-round can enjoy it anytime we walk out our front (or back) doors, simply for the intrinsic value it brings to our lives.

A common misconception is that land trusts, like TILT, are anti-development, and negatively impact a community’s tax-base. This is untrue. TILT understands the economic importance of both development and land conservation, and supports a balanced, thoughtful approach to land use.

Over half of the land conserved by TILT is on the tax rolls, contributing to a municipality’s revenue stream, and enhancing the value of adjacent lands. Conserved land usually requires little or no municipal services, lessening the tax burden for taxpayers. TILT also works with landowners, agencies and local governments to identify appropriate development for land under conservation easement, enhancing the value for the landowner and the community alike. (A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between the landowner and a land trust that limits some activities like development, timber harvesting, mining, etc. that might take place on a parcel of land. The landowner maintains ownership of the land, and it remains on the tax rolls.)

Conserved land that is owned and managed by TILT is removed from the tax rolls as it provides public benefit. Potters Beach, at the head of Grindstone Island, is an excellent example of this type of land. Every year, tens of thousands of people visit TILT’s Potters Beach PreserveThe Macsherry Trail at Crooked Creek Preserve, the Sissy Danforth Rivergate Trail, Zenda Farm Preserve are all examples of this type of conserved land.

Working for TILT has truly been a learning experience for me in understanding the role of a land trust in a community. I hope I’ve successfully managed to impart that knowledge so that you can see how the Thousand Islands Land Trust adds value to your personal connection with the 1000 Islands region.

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