By Robert Brandt
I was worried.
I’d served on The Land Trust Board of Directors since its founding in 1999, and in May 2015, I was rotating off the board. My involvement had been so intense and such a major part of my identity that I worried a cavernous hole would open in my life. Like most worry, it was a waste of time. I have since found a satisfying new role as a stewardship volunteer.
When landowners protect their land through conservation easements with The Land Trust, they commit to keeping the property in a certain condition. No two easements are exactly the same, but they all require that the land remain substantially unaltered. Subsequent owners are required to abide by the easement, as well. It’s then The Land Trust’s obligation to ensure that easement terms are complied with forever. That’s a weighty responsibility.
To meet this obligation, The Land Trust must inspect every property, every year. “Stewardship” is the term for this. The phenomenal growth of protected land – we’re now past 100,000 acres – makes the stewardship task too large for the staff to complete alone. So each year, a cadre of around twenty trained volunteers fan out across our beautiful state, from the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains to the banks of the Mississippi River, to make stewardship monitoring visits.
We study the “baseline” files to educate ourselves about the property and easement conditions; contact landowners to arrange a mutually convenient time; and inspect the property. Some landowners wish to accompany us, some don’t. We then submit fill-in-the-blank reports back to The Land Trust staff.
This year, 2016, my first as a non-board member, I visited more than twenty projects, usually in the company of another volunteer. I’m familiar to some degree with each of our 300-plus projects from my service as Chairman of the board’s Land Protection Committee, which evaluates projects prior to accepting them. I’d been on many of the properties, and I loved going back to them. For about half of my inspections, it was my first visit. This was a particular treat for me, going to projects I’d studied and appreciated their conservation values. And, too, interacting with our landowners was an almost universally pleasant experience.
When it comes to meeting The Land Trust’s stewardship obligation, the Volunteer State lives up to its nickname.
A few photos from this year’s monitoring, taken by staff member and land monitor Luke Iverson (click photos to enlarge)…