What is conservation? The definition is “the careful preservation of something.”
Conservation is talked about typically in the context of nature, water, soil, a historic structure, artwork, and the like. In other words, there are many different things that can be conserved.
When people talk of land conservation, what do they mean? A quote from Aldo Leopold may help clarify: “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” Thus, conserving the land is conserving life itself.
Recently, someone asked me whether farming is compatible with conservation.
Oh boy, where do I start?
The Federal agency that works with farmers is called the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Since 1935, the NRCS, and its predecessor, the Soil Conservation Service, has worked with farmers to help ensure farming is done in a way that conserves both soil and water resources on the land so the land will be available for crop and livestock production forever.
The agency was formed as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1935 during the Dust Bowl when Congress passed Public Law 74-46, which states "the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands…is a menace to the national welfare....”
Maybe you saw Ken Burns’ documentary “The Dust Bowl,” but if not, here’s a quick summary: in the 1920s, areas of the great plains (Central United States and Canada) were being over-grazed and intensively farmed in ways that left top soil exposed to the elements. When an 8-year period of severe droughts hit the area in the 1930s, the soil literally blew away – as far away as Washington DC and New York City. In some places, 75% of the top soil was lost.
National leaders recognized that the rich prairie soils of our country were one of the most valuable natural resources the country had, and steps needed to be taken to ensure it was not wasted.
At the time, the new agency’s mission was to help farmers take better care of the land.
Today, the mission is to provide “America’s farmers and ranchers with financial and technical assistance to voluntarily put conservation on the ground, not only helping the environment but agricultural operations, too.”
To extend soil conservation to more farmers, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) were formed. NRCS staff work closely with the local SWCD staff to provide technical assistance on natural resource issues for landowners, farmers and other local individuals and organizations.
McHenry County is served by the McHenry-Lake Soil and Water Conservation District office in Woodstock that was formed in 1947 under the Soil and Water Conservation Districts Act: of 1937. The act states that it is " in the public interest to provide (a) for the conservation of soil, soil resources, water and water resources in the State, (b) for the control and prevention of soil erosion, (c) for the prevention of air and water pollution, and (d) for the prevention of erosion, floodwater and sediment damages, and thereby to conserve natural resources….”
There are various funding programs offered by the USDA through the NRCS. Examples include:
- the Wetland Reserve Program where landowners are paid to convert farmland permanently to wetland
- the Conservation Reserve Program where landowners are paid to convert farmland to grasses or trees for a set period of time (usually 10 years)
- the Conservation Stewardship Program that pays farmers who implement soil and water conservation practices such as no-till farming, use of cover crops to build organic matter in the soil, field buffers, grass waterways, management of habitat for wildlife, and many more things.
It is up to each farmer to decide what soil and water conservation practices he or she will use on their farm, but there is no shortage of good information and technical experts to help them make decisions that will conserve their land.
The end of the year is always a surprise of sorts at TLC. There are usually several land preservation projects brewing that may or may not come together... It can be hard to predict.
After 10 year-ends, it doesn't stress me out anymore. I've learned that everything happens in its own time, and if a project isn't meant to be this year, it may come back around in another three or seven years! Or never. It will happen if it is meant to be.
This year, 2011, we started off with what seemed like a rush of easements on Fleming Road. We finished 8 or 9 by the end of 2010, and are now up to 18 permanent easements along that road. We don't know for sure what the easements will mean for the roadway, but they have most certainly sent the message that not only do the residents want to see the road stay in its same footprint, but they are willing to give up certain rights to their own property to help make sure that happens.
I think of it as an "Occupy Fleming Road" thing...very grassroots in nature! (Or should I say "oak-roots" in nature?)
TLC actually "purchased" some land this year too. Two parcels that comprise an acre on Barnard Mill Road came up for tax delinquent sale in September. We placed a bid on both parcels ($1300 total), and won! After clearing up a lien, and buying title insurance, our total costs were still less than $5,000. And did I mention that the land is adjacent to 26 acres of conservation easement? And that the easements are adjacent to Glacial Park? How cool is that?!
2012 will be known as the year of two acre land donations. Two acres donated in Nunda Township, 2.5 acres donated in Hebron Township (adjacent to the Dick York Memorial Arboretum easement), and 2 acres donated in Dorr Township adjacent to our 7 acre easement in the Country Ridge subdivision.
I like to say that if we keep up this pace, TLC will have preserved all of the County through land donations in about 500 years!
Our "bread & butter" work - accepting donated permanent conservation easements on private land - is still going strong. We closed on a 38.5 acre easement last week that adjoins the Yonder Prairie/Westwod Park complex just west of Woodstock. And we are set to close on a 56 acre easement that preserves prairie, wetland and oak natural areas by the end of the year. The attorneys have agreed on the details, so now it is just a matter of making a few edits and getting some signatures so the document can be recorded!
Finally, I am pleased to report that we now have a signed agreement to purchase the Gateway property in Harvard! Nearly 18 acres that will become a City Park. We'll finish the acquisition sometime in 2012. No surprises, please.
Saturday December 10th was the inaugural Oak Rescue at the future Gateway Park on the south side of Harvard near the intersection of Routes 14 & 23.
Thirty volunteers from throughout McHenry County donated over 90 hours on a cold morning to release about a dozen ancient oaks from the grips of invasive brush that had grown up around them in the last 20-30 years.
The 18 acre property is home to dozens of oaks that were growing on the property before the area was settled. These trees would have welcomed early settlers to town 165 or more years ago, and now will continue to welcome residents and visitors to Harvard forever.
Through a partnership between the City of Harvard and The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, Gateway Park will be preserved as a public nature park for hiking, relaxation and education.
The property includes several oak groves, with dozens of trees that were already large when the City was founded in 1856. Additionally, one of the only portions of Rush Creek that was never ditched runs through the center of the property, providing important habitat for a diversity of fish, including three that are listed as "species in greatest need of conservation" by the State of Illinois.
Future Oak Rescues are being planned. Contact The Land Conservancy for more information: 815-337-9502.
TLC's 4th Annual Art of the Land Amateur Photography Contest is now taking applications!
The Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC) invites amateur photographers to participate in a unique photo contest meant to highlight the inspiring nature of TLC’s land preservation work. The contest goal is to showcase photographs that reveal the beautiful and immense natural and cultural diversity found throughout McHenry County.
The photo at left was the People's Choice winner in the 2011 contest. The picture was taken by Margie Bjorkman at TLC's Pensinger Conservation Easement on Fleming Road. The 3 acre oak woodland that can be seen behind the gate was preserved by Ray & Lynn Pensinger in 2009.
The photo below was the first place juried winner in 2011, and was taken by Kacie Butler at the Sobczak Conservation Easement in Greenwood. Lynne and Marty Sobczak also preserved three acres of their property in 2009. The property preserves a stretch of the Nippersink Creek as well as half of the only remaining lily pond along the creek.
TLC has preserved over 1900 acres of land in McHenry County by working with more than 70 landowners. The properties protected range in size from 250 acres to less than one acre. All lands are protected from development forever through permanent conservation restrictions.
The photo contest gives amateur photographers a chance to visit many of these privately-owned conservation properties, and through their photographs to share their experiences with the public when the photos are shown at TLC's Art of the Land Art Show & Benefit in September.
A gallery of all 2011's photos can be seen here.
In our work at TLC, we are often reminded of the power of the individual to make a profound difference in the world. An acre at a time, and after twenty years, nearly 3 square miles of land have been permanently preserved in one of the fastest developing counties in the US (until the recession, that is).
But TLC & McHenry County are not the only groups and places that are experiencing a groundswell of private land conservation.
The first census of conservation land trusts in five years found 10 million new acres conserved across the US since 2005, including over 90,000 acres in Illinois and 1,360 acres by TLC here in McHenry County.
The National Land Trust Census, released by the Land Trust Alliance, shows that voluntarily protected land increased 27 percent between 2005 and 2010. In the same time period, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a major federal conservation program, added just over 500,000 acres and saw a 38% funding cut. You can find the census is online at www.lta.org/census.
A total of 47 million acres—an area over twice the size of all the national parks in the contiguous United States—are now protected by conservation land trusts. A high percentage of the new acreage comes through local land trusts like The Land Conservancy of McHenry County. In Illinois, land trusts conserved over 90,000 acres between 2005 and 2010, a 42% increase in land protected when compared to 2000-2005. Given declining state and federal budgets for land preservation, this news offers some encouragement: individuals are stepping up and working with nonprofits to help guarantee a legacy of land will be passed down to future generations of Americans!
In McHenry County, TLC permanently preserved 1,360 acres of natural, agricultural and scenic land between 2006 and 2010, a five-fold increase from the 257 acres we had protected from 1991-2005. An important factor in that growth has been an enhanced Federal Income Tax deduction for landowners who place a voluntary, permanent conservation restriction on their land.
But, the biggest factor in the growth of local private land preservation is the fact that McHenry County residents value the land and all it provides. And, local people are investing in our future by working with TLC to ensure clean water, local food and places to play for our children and for generations to come.
Did you know that native people, for perhaps thousands of years before Europeans arrived on this continent, managed the land to make it more conducive to hunting? They lit fires to keep the brush down in the woods, and to keep the landscape around their encampments open for visibility, and safe from wildfires.
This painting by Frederic Remington, noted painter of the American west in the 1800s, shows Native people watching a grass fire that they set. This would be an image that Remington actually witnessed -- he wasn't one for painting from his imagination -- he liked to depict real people and real situations that he witnessed first hand. Kind of like an early newspaper photographer, but with a canvas and paint brushes.
An early settler's journal describes this place we live in today as looking like "apple orchards planted by the hand of God for the pleasure of man." The oak woods that early settlers found were open, easy to walk or ride a horse through. Today, one might say they were "park like."
This open and inviting scene was part natural (through spread of wildfires), but also partly human-made, through the use of controlled fires by Native peoples.
After European settlement of the region, wildfires were eliminated as were human-made fires. This permitted brush and less hardy trees (like maples and ash) to grow unhindered by fire.