Columbia Land Trust's reach, reputation keep growing

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

MAJOR COLUMBIA LAND TRUST PROJECTS

The Columbia Land Trust has built a portfolio of more than 18,000 acres since the Vancouver-based nonprofit’s founding in 1990. A few of its biggest efforts span from the east Cascades to the Pacific Ocean:

• Mount St. Helens: 9,000-plus acres, primarily forestland conserved to protect it from development, remain active forestry.

• Klickitat River: 3,500 acres, includes multiple restoration efforts and the removal of an old haul road to help the river reconnect with its historic floodplain.

• Columbia Stock Ranch: 960 acres, acquired in 2012 to restore wetlands and historic salmon habitat near Rainier, Ore.

• Willapa Bay: 380 acres, aims to protect diverse ecosystem from development and habitat degradation.

MAJOR LAND TRUST EFFORTS IN CLARK COUNTY

• 1993: Acquired 43 donated acres north of Camas known as “Johnson’s Enchanted Acres” in the Columbia Land Trust’s first major acquisition.

• 1998: Acquired 256 acres at Camp Curry near Lacamas Lake; later transferred to Clark County.

• 2003: Acquired 24 acres along the Washougal River north of Washougal before adding 6 additional acres from a bequest in 2009.

• 2006: Acquired 170 acres south of the East Fork Lewis River near Copper Creek.

• 2007: Acquired 12 acres adjacent to Lewisville Park; conserved for salmon habitat.

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Standing in a packed office, Glenn Lamb looked around the room. The Columbia Land Trust executive director began rattling off a loyal roster of supporters looking back at him.

Some of you have written us into your wills, he said. Some of you have taken out mortgages to conserve land for us. Some have donated money. Others have simply helped spread the word.

The group was familiar with the land trust's work, but the setting was new. Dozens had gathered in April to christen a new Columbia Land Trust office in downtown Hood River, Ore., a step in its effort to establish a more visible presence in an area that's become a major part of the organization's conservation and restoration efforts.

It's the latest expansion for a Vancouver-based nonprofit that has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades — exceeding even the expectations of its founders. From modest local beginnings, the land trust now has a reach expanding from the east Cascades to the Pacific Coast. A staff of about two dozen people shepherd a multimillion-dollar budget, overseeing and managing close to 24,000 acres of land in and around the Columbia River watershed. A membership of more than 1,800 offers its support.

It has won praise from one of the global giants in its field, The Nature Conservancy.

All that, for an organization that once housed its main office in someone else's copy room.

"When we originally set it up, it was Clark County-focused," said Vancouver resident Bill Dygert, a founding board member. "I don't think I ever imagined a day when the geographical range of its work is as big as it is now."

That growth might lead some to wonder: Just where does Clark County fit into the land trust's plans these days?

Many of its highest-profile projects lie well outside of the organization's backyard. It's conserved more than 9,000 acres of land near Mount St. Helens. Another 3,500 acres around the Klickitat River make up one of the organization's biggest efforts in the Columbia River Gorge area. Last month's office opening followed the purchase of 299 acres along the Hood River. There, the land trust aims to restore some 3 miles of river habitat downstream of the old Powerdale Dam in Oregon.

Lamb said Clark County is still very much a part of the land trust's work — even if projects here don't command the attention of larger efforts elsewhere. Building capacity and resources through a more regional approach elsewhere has allowed more investment locally, he said. Past acquisitions are still maintained and require active stewardship. The land trust has had a hand in conserving more than 1,000 acres of land in Clark County, much of it in the last decade.

Still, the organization has shifted its strategy as it's evolved over the years. Projects it may have pursued in earlier years may not end up in the trust's portfolio now. That means a more thoughtful, selective approach to conservation, to ensure that it's done in a meaningful way, Lamb said.

"You have to get comfortable with the fact that you can't be all things to all people," said Cherie Kearney, a forest initiatives and special projects coordinator with the land trust.

Turning point

To hear Lamb tell it, the Columbia Land Trust's history is one of the right people showing up at the right time.

It started with a handful of volunteers coming together, each interested in land conservation at a local level. Most were driven at least partially by the rapid growth they saw around them in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The land trust officially formed in 1990. It had no paid staff for several years, just volunteers. Each juggled day jobs and other obligations. Progress was hit-and-miss.

Lamb admits the land trust's efforts were "haphazard" at times in the early years. The group tackled projects and took on donated land but lacked the refined vision it would develop later.

A turning point arrived in the late 1990s. The land trust's leaders huddled for a meeting one evening and decided the only way to get real traction and find the meaningful success they were seeking was to find someone to help raise money.

Lamb's phone rang the next day. It was Kearney. She had done fundraising for another nonprofit, and was looking to work for a conservation organization — "a cause that I care about," she said.

Kearney started at 10 hours per week, paid out of board members' pockets. She started outreach, boosted membership and wrote the land trust's first major grant.

A major transition followed.

The land trust soon hired Kearney full-time, and it hired Lamb as its executive director. The organization broadened its scope, looking for new opportunities in the Columbia River Gorge and downstream toward the coast.

Leaders didn't take the move lightly, Lamb said. Taking a regional focus meant bringing some 100 new watersheds onto its canvas. The land trust and its supporters first decided to pull together all of the information they had available on each watershed. Let's see what we know, they said.

Each watershed ended up with its own document.

"Some of the watersheds, some of the pieces of paper were completely blank. Others were fairly robust," Lamb said. "But we figured, well, this is better than what we had before."

When a new property or project comes onto the land trust's radar, leaders consider four main criteria: what watersheds the land is connected to, its resources, its threats and its opportunities.

Often, a single project poses difficult questions. At Powerdale, the land trust acquired three miles of diverse habitat along the lower Hood River, just a short distance from the city of the same name. It also acquired pieces of defunct infrastructure from the old dam, now used as a walkway overlooking the river. Removing it to benefit the river would mean removing what many see as an asset for people.

The Powerdale corridor has clear value, Lamb said, but those are the questions that go into managing it long term. Acquisition is one step, often the one that grabs local headlines. The responsibility to maintain and restore a property doesn't go away when the attention does, he said. That's where strategic planning comes in.

"We don't want to just respond to any opportunity that comes forward," Lamb said. "We want to evaluate each watershed and make sure we understand each watershed."

Living rooms to board rooms

Columbia Land Trust staffers like to say they do conservation at the kitchen table, face to face with private landowners. That's still true — but it also happens in board rooms and corporate offices. Staff trips on rural back roads are balanced with trips to Portland, Seattle and Olympia.

As the land trust has grown, so have its regional partners. Leaders have worked with large timber companies, federal agencies such as the Bonneville Power Administration, and on the Powerdale transfer, PacifiCorp, a Portland-based utility.

"I think their professionalism is really high," said Peter Scholes, director of protection for The Nature Conservancy in Washington. The global conservation organization has worked with the Columbia Land Trust on a handful of projects in recent years.

Southwest Washington isn't high on The Nature Conservancy's priority list. But having a capable partner helps carry out a broad mission on a more local level, Scholes said.

"The scale that the Columbia Land Trust is working on is a scale that we don't work on," he said. "But we can work with them."

A private conservation group also fills a role that government entities cannot, said Bronson Potter, a former Columbia Land Trust board member who works in the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. For many, it simply comes down to trust itself.

"There was, I think, some sentiment that giving land to a government isn't really people's first choice," Potter said.

Klickitat County rancher Bill Giersch sold hundreds of acres of his property to the Columbia Land Trust in 2001. Giersch turned to the land trust after a less-than-smooth episode with a government agency, Lamb said. Conditions written into the deed that sealed the deal made that clear:

"Property is to be held for conservation in perpetuity. No transfer to U.S. Forest Service is allowed."

Like many of the land trust's acquisitions, the agreement with Giersch was years in the making. It came only after many meetings and conversations.

"The most important part of our work is relationships," Lamb said.

Making connections

With relationships comes reputation.

In the eyes of the public and private entities that write the checks for land conservation, the Columbia Land Trust has earned it.

"We have a pretty high bar when it comes to funding land trusts," said Kit Gillem, a program director with the Murdock Memorial Trust in Vancouver. Murdock has been a significant contributor to the land trust, awarding three separate quarter-million-dollar grants during the past 11 years.

"And they've exceeded those expectations every grant cycle," Gillem said.

He highlighted one key trait: the ability to collaborate. With other nonprofits, with governments, with landowners.

Dory Brooking's connection with the Columbia Land Trust goes back more than a decade. Looking to conserve their 8 acres on the Columbia River between Vancouver and Camas, she and her late husband signed a conservation easement with the land trust to make it happen.

The agreement was signed in late 2001. The relationship didn't end there, Brooking said. She's followed the land trust's subsequent efforts, and spoken with Lamb and others since.

"We've been really happy with the association and really happy with the work they've been doing," she said.

That work continues to evolve. So does the land trust team. Save for Lamb, most of the organization's founding board members have largely stepped aside. The land trust recently hired a new deputy director who doubles as legal counsel, a communications manager, and a volunteer coordinator. All three are new positions.

Lamb said he expects the land trust to continue refining its efforts — including new pursuits in Clark County. That may include a renewed emphasis on local farmland, he said, perhaps helping remove the huge land cost that keeps some young farmers from getting started and staying viable. Stimulating local farming could boost an already-growing local food movement, Lamb said. It could also slow the decline of active farmland in Clark County.

Lamb knows conversations around conservation aren't always smooth. Some rural counties already struggle with a lagging tax base, and putting land off-limits to development or resource can be difficult to swallow. Just this month, days before a major land trust purchase near Mount St. Helens was announced, Skamania County commissioners sent a letter to Southwest Washington's Congressional delegation highlighting the "precarious financial position" of the county due to so much land being protected. Only 2 percent of the county's land generates regular yearly private property tax, the commissioners said.

But past conservation work has crossed political and cultural boundaries before, Lamb said. It resonates on a deeper level, he added.

"When we started Columbia Land Trust, we believed that the people of the Northwest, it was part of the fabric of our personalities and our communities to care about this place," Lamb said.

"I think that's why we get the response that we get, is that it appeals to people at a really visceral level — that we're doing something that matches their values."


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com