Want to save the Earth? Start at home with a land trust

By KRISTIN DEBOER For the Gazette
October 12, 2019

Looking back at last month’s youth-led Global Climate Strikes, and my own family’s growing concern for this planet we call home, I find myself thinking about what “home” means and where we can really make a difference. When the climate and politics of the entire world seem overwhelming, it may seem insignificant to focus on the health of where we live. But perhaps acting at home is the most hopeful thing we can do. And that can begin with the land.

The Valley is our home. It’s where you can feel connected to family and friends, but also to abundant forests, productive farms and beautiful trails. It’s where you can feel rooted in the land, where you can find the places and people you love. This is why I live here. It’s a sense of home that encompasses humans, plants, animals — all forms of life that share this special place.

The view from Mt. Pollux in South Amherst. “The Valley is our home. It’s where you can feel rooted in the land, where you can find the places and people you love.” FOR THE GAZETTE/Kristin DeBoer

Creating and protecting this larger sense of home does not happen by accident. This is what land trusts are all about: We are neighbors who come together to sustain the land that provides the foundation for everything we call “home.” This land nourishes our bodies, our spirits and our communities. Land trusts exist in many towns in every state across the country. We are non-profit groups grounded in place, working to expand the collective sense of home to include human and natural communities.

Land conservation starts at home because this is the place we know the best and love the most. As the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature — for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” In fact, most efforts at land conservation begin with love — a landowner’s love of their own forest or farm, and their desire for it to remain healthy for future generations, or a neighborhood taking action to stop development of land they love, but don’t own.

Land trusts can help. For landowners, conservation restrictions ensure that family forests and farms will continue providing clean air, water and food. The landowner retains ownership of the property, but sells or donates the development rights. For a neighborhood trying to save land from sprawling development, compromise solutions are often possible. Land trusts can assist by negotiating with the developer to protect critical natural areas, and by steering new construction to a smaller portion of the land.

Simply reacting to development threats, though, is not enough to save our larger home — the Valley we love — in the long run. Communities have an important role to play by proactively creating plans for their hometowns to build common ground for land conservation. Town open space and recreation plans prioritize natural areas to protect. Master plans can help concentrate development and infrastructure closer to town centers and existing roads. In Massachusetts, the Community Preservation Act creates funding for land conservation (as well as affordable housing and historic preservation) that can be combined with other state and federal funding dedicated to the protection of forests, parks, trails, water, agriculture, and biodiversity.

It may feel as if little is being done to prevent climate catastrophe. But don’t despair — something is in fact being done. Together, individuals, land trusts, communities and states are working every day to protect the natural fabric of our homelands. We are protecting forests to sequester carbon emissions, which can mitigate climate change. We are conserving farms to sustain local food systems and ensure food security. We are protecting wetlands to create resiliency to more frequent flooding and powerful storms. According to the United Nations Environment Program, “Nature is one of the most effective ways of combating climate change and should be part of every country’s climate strategy…. Nature-based solutions have the potential to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 12 gigatons each year. This is roughly equal to emissions from all the world’s coal-fired plants.”

Marching in the streets to demand renewable energy and drastic reductions in fossil fuel use is critical when our global leaders are failing us, and as a global community, we need to do so much more. The good news is that you can also make a difference right now, an acre at a time, right here at home. Become a member of a local land trust. Volunteer on your town’s conservation commission. Vote to conserve forests and farms at Town Meeting.

What if everyone focused some of their efforts on conserving and caring for the place where they live? We don’t need to wait for national or international leaders to protect our home planet — and we can’t afford to. That’s why your local land trust, your hometown and your Commonwealth are already at work. Join them. Conservation close to home, for all walks of life — that is where the hope lies. From our backyards to our neighborhoods to hometowns across our state and 49 others, home is where we all have the power to make a real difference.

Kristin DeBoer is the executive director of Kestrel Land Trust.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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