Presentation by Evan McDonald, Executive Director of the Keweenaw Land Trust

Kretz Lumber Co. Forest Family Field Day September 13, 2008

This talk was preceeded by a presentation on forest fragmentation by Joe Hovel.


This situation sounds bleak.  Let’s consider what Joe said and let’s take a deep breath. 

I wanted to find a way to be positive about the overall challenges we face as well as some of the specific solutions. 

What Joe described are some of the critical threats facing forestlands, threats that will create challenges for forest management and stewardship.  But people historically respond in ways to minimize threats and lessen impacts.

The history of the automobile is an example.  Early on, cars were not very powerful and road systems were primitive – driving wasn’t very dangerous because you could not go very fast.  But as cars quickly became desirable, more people had them and car manufacturers built bigger and more powerful models.  The demand for safer roads and safety systems like traffic lights followed suit.  Most drivers drove responsibly and respected the rules of the road because they appreciated that we share the road.  Cars are as powerful as they have ever been, but they are also safer than they have ever been.   Much of the development in car technology and the design of roads and highways have been about making travel by automobile safer.  My point is that people, and the professionals, organizations and institutions that deal with threats and dangers tend to respond appropriately.

When it comes to forest stewardship, landowners have a lot of allies providing assistance.  Numerous government and private programs, university researchers, trained professional foresters and loggers, and landowner associations and cooperatives like Partners in Forestry that share information and strategies.  In recent years, land trusts have something to offer in support of forest stewardship.

But first, what is a land trust?

Land trusts or conservancies are charitable, non-profit organizations that are qualified to own land or hold interests in land for conservation purposes.  There are over 1500 land trusts in the United States that have conserved over 9 million acres of private land to date.  One of the main tools we use is a conservation easement.  What is a conservation easement?  At its most basic it is an agreement to achieve conservation and stewardship goals.  We view them as a partnership between a landowner and the land trust pursuing mutual goals.

The ability of a land trust to function and carry out its mission rests firmly in the foundation of private property rights in this country.  We know that land ownership has many rights that can be individually separated and leased, sold or passed on to heirs.  We recognize the right to divide, mineral rights, timber rights, water rights, development rights, and so forth.  If a property owner has the right to develop, by the same property rights they have the right to conserve.  A conservation easement allows a private property owner to exercise their right to conserve and give a land trust the authority to uphold their conservation intent…even after they have passed away.

When people hear about land conservation the idea of saving land comes to mind.  And sometimes the choice is as dramatic as having woodlands or having a strip mall.  But conservation projects on managed forests in many respects are about ensuring good forest stewardship – that can be the goal of the landowner who pursues this arrangement.  So a conservation project can save a forest and also make sure that a managed forest is managed well.  So we can add to the earlier notion.  A conservation easement can allow a private property owner to exercise their right to ensure good stewardship practices on their forestland and give a land trust the authority to uphold their stewardship intent.

In terms of nuts and bolts, working forest conservation easements (WFCEs) are compatible with sustainable forestry, as well as Michigan’s Commercial Forest program and Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law.

Forest stewardship aims to sustain the health and productivity of forests, responding to threats and anticipating what may come.  So the conservation easement agreement will require and reference an appropriate forest management plan that can be updated and modified to changing needs…or threats to forest health.

For a variety of reasons, a working forest conservation easement will not be desirable for many forestland owners.  But for some forestland owners it may be exactly what they are looking for.

It might be for forestland owners that have invested more than just time and money.  It might be about your pride and joy.  Your sweat.  Your spirit.  It might be for people who feel like their land has become a part of them…and they have become a part of the land.

We have to be honest with one another about this.  If someone is pursuing a conservation scenario strictly for financial reasons, it won’t work.  It has to first be about conservation and stewardship goals.  The financial incentives or potential charitable benefits can help. 

A WFCE is an approach for landowners that are deeply committed to stewardship and desire to create a legacy, to ensure that good stewardship will happen on the land they have managed well and invested in so much.

A WFCE is a way to protect your investment.  

For people that care about the future of their forestland and who would like those forests to receive good stewardship long into the future, a working forest conservation easement can accomplish those goals.  The land trust can be their partner in those efforts.

I have two stories about trees that will help me make some points.

The first story is about a fruit tree in my backyard.

The second story is about a tree in England.

A robust and committed organization can take on the long-term responsibility to see that goals are met and intentions are honored.  In our work we talk about helping people create a legacy…a living legacy…a healthy landscape.

The same person who took steps to protect the fruit tree in my yard from threats, with the intention of being a good steward, may also have caused that tree’s demise.  Not because they didn’t care but by simply forgetting to do something important.

A land trust as an organization and as a community of people is about remembering.   

As one individual landowner, can I do anything that will make a difference for these huge problems that Joe described?  Why is there promise that one individual’s actions can help many others be good stewards of the land?

In a community such as the Kretz’s forest family, I’m sure there is a healthy camaraderie and a sense that you are all in this together.  I’m sure people are swapping stories and ideas…information that will make its way home and maybe help you be better stewards.   If one of you places a working forest conservation easement on your forestland, that becomes a story to share.  We look to the people we know and trust…who know what we are up against for advice.  When we want to know if a movie is worth seeing or a restaurant makes a good meal…or a car is a good model…we ask a friend…we ask our neighbors.  We can become better stewards of the land…one friend…one neighbor at a time.  Maybe we can nip this forest fragmentation problem before it becomes ridiculous.