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Local Land Trust a Farmland Preservation Resource

The Natural Heritage Land Trust has been on the cutting edge of farmland protection in Wisconsin for more than a decade. Executive Director Jim Welsh says the Madison-based land trust follows a simple formula: Partnering with local governments to accomplish mutual goals.

The land trust first got involved with farmland protection in the town of Dunn, which has worked hard to preserve its rural character on the edge of Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison.

“Dunn developed a very strong farmland protection program but didn’t have all the tools necessary to reach their goal of permanently protecting the rural farm landscape there,” Welsh says. In 1997, opportunity knocked. A farm family in the town was selling its land but wanted to see it protected. “So they asked Natural Heritage to work with them on this first opportunity, and it was fortuitous because one of the tenants there was Bob Uphoff, a very progressive farmer concerned about the land base near Madison. He actually became the farmer who owned most of this farm when the easement was placed on it.”

“So we got involved to help them do this first easement, and that developed into a partnership where we have helped to protect 20 farms and 2,500 acres.” The town’s Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE) program is funded by its property tax levy.

Natural Heritage is co-holder of the easements with the town and monitors them for compliance. “The town had the foresight to think about how they could insure that their public investment in this land could be served for perpetuity,” Welsh says. “So they want to have a third party to independently uphold conservation easements. We provide independent assurance to the town, townspeople and also county, state and federal funders that we will always be there to defend the conservation easement. We are out there monitoring.” The town provides funds to the land trust’s endowment fund to support monitoring and enforcement.

“The takeaway to me from working with the town of Dunn is the importance of a good partnership with a local unit of government. That makes a very strong program – having local buy-in through a strong land use plan that says, ‘Yes, we do want to protect farmland here.’ The buy-in of the town board and the town plan commission will go a long way in making a strong program.”

Since becoming engaged with Dunn, the Natural Heritage has worked in several other towns. It also serves as a consultant to nearby Jefferson County, which is aggressively seeking to protect farmland in populous southeast Wisconsin. The land trust also holds two working easements in Black Earth Valley, west of Madison and another in Iowa County. Other easements are in various stages of development.

In Jefferson County, Natural Heritage serves as a consultant to the Farmland Preservation Committee. The county asked for help to finalize criteria to identify the best farms to protect. Natural Heritage helped the county prepare applications for Wisconsin’s first round of PACE applications, focusing on two farms. Both were selected by DATCP. One was the highest-scoring application in the state.

Natural Heritage also worked with the town of Windsor in Dane County and with Columbia County on successful PACE applications.

Waupaca County has emerged as a farm and forest land preservation leader in the state. Blonde sees it this way: “Very few counties are blessed with the farmland, forest land and water resources we have. Protection of farm and forest land not only helps protect the character of our county, but our economic foundation, as well.”

ADVICE FOR LAND TRUSTS:

Partnering with a local unit of government leads to a stronger program, Welsh says. Local buy-in helps earn more points on PACE applications. Land trusts can also help educate local governments about the obligation to monitor and enforce easements. “We have a lot of educating to do about that,” he says.

It’s also important to focus on the goals of agricultural easements and not worry about extraneous issues, Welsh says. “Focus on what you want to accomplish with the easement, such as protecting soil and making land available for farming,” he advises.

Finally, he recommends a go-slow approach. “Clearly a lesson from successful programs in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey is start small, do good work and build public support, and these things can become a really important part of a community.”