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Public and private land trusts gaining ground

JOHNSON COUNTY– Despite rising land costs and a down economy, figures released in November 2011 show that now more than ever, people are making financial and individual commitments to preserve the nation’s natural areas for recreational use and habitat protection and to safeguard water supplies.
Data in the 2010 National Land Trust Census Report show that the total acres of land conserved by local, state and national land trusts grew by about 23 million acres in the last 10 years. Iowa showed a 22 percent increase in protected land since 2005.
That’s great news to local organizations like Johnson County Heritage Trust (JCHT).
JCHT, established in 1978, is a private, nonprofit organization with a mission of preserving the region’s natural heritage through the protection and management of local land and water with significant environmental value. Working with other environmental-minded groups, local governments and private landowners, JCHT now maintains eight properties for the enjoyment and education of the public. The organization also has conservation easements on 11 properties, which protect their environmental integrity into the future.
JCHT Executive Director Tammy Richardson said people are increasingly recognizing the value of protecting the natural world around us.
“People appreciate the natural areas we have, whether they are just driving by on their way to work, looking out their back windows or taking a walk,” said Richardson. “The Trust hears all the time about land that gets developed. People are realizing that if we don’t care for our land, there won’t be places to take our children for picnics and walks or just to enjoy the weather on a nice day.”
In the past, she added, children spent more time outdoors enjoying creeks, ponds, creatures and plants in nearby natural areas.
“I think our kids are really getting removed from that, in this day and age of videogames and computers, and people know that young people today are not doing and seeing the same things they did when they were kids.”
JCHT is one of five land trusts operating in Iowa. Two of those are staffed, and three are all-volunteer groups. Though JCHT has a paid director, it remains independent of government financing and relies strictly on private donations and the assistance of volunteers for its operation. Currently, JCHT has stewardship of over 200 acres in Johnson County and monitors an additional 230 acres with its conservation easements.
According to the census, Iowa land trusts protect a total of 107,231 acres and their natural habitats. Iowa ranks 28th in the nation in the number of conserved acres, and fifth in the Midwest.
The land trust census has been conducted by the Land Trust Alliance every five years since 1982, collecting data through surveys, emails and telephone calls to measure the conservation efforts of local, state and national land trusts within the United States. Other trends shown in the census report indicate that Iowa land trusts collectively have increased their staff numbers by 10 percent in the last five years, recorded a total of 379 active volunteers and were helped by the contributions of nearly 8,000 members and financial supporters.
In 2010 alone, The JCHT organization logged over 1,200 volunteer hours and reached a new level of nearly 700 members. Last year, the local land trust raised $234,450 in revenues through contributions, grants, membership fees, fundraising events and investment income.
Although progress has been made, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation President and founding board member of the Land Trust Alliance Mark Ackelson said Iowa still has work to do.
“For example, data show Iowa is still near the bottom of the list of states in total dollars spent on natural areas conservation and also the amount of public land per capita,” Ackelson stated in a recent press release.
According to the report, the country’s top five states for acres conserved as of 2010 were California, Maine, Colorado, Montana and Virginia.
Richardson said JCHT regularly assesses its goals and hopes to continue to mirror the nation’s progress in land stewardship and protection.
“Two thousand twelve promises to be yet another year of growth for JCHT as our newly hired Property Stewardship Specialist Jake Hart begins work and our organization strives to become accredited,” said Richardson. “There are several properties being reviewed for future acquisition or protection through easement.  JCHT continues to strive to grow membership numbers, volunteers and much needed contributions to support our efforts.
Richardson offered thanks to all who support conservation in and around Johnson County. 
“Land conservation is truly important in order to leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren,” she said.
For additional information about Johnson County Heritage Trust or to become a member, contact JCHT at 319-338-7030, visit www.jcht.org or find it on Facebook at Johnson County Heritage Trust.