Category Archives: Agriculture

A Land Ethic 60 Years Later: Growth of the Land Trust Movement

A recent article in The American Spectator highlights the impressive accomplishments and growth of the land trust movement in the U.S. over the last 60 years. Census data collected by the national Land Trust Alliance indicates significant growth in land conservation by these private—and usually small—nonprofit land trusts since 2000. See Tocqueville Would Be Proud. There are more than 1700 land trusts in the U.S. that have conserved 37 million acres of land.

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and his other writings were highly influential to the conservation movement in the 1950s-1970s. Last week was Aldo Leopold Weekend in Wisconsin. His idea of a land ethic, a guiding principle for the actions of people and their relationship to land, evolved into some of the early visions of land trusts, now considered conservation leaders, beginning in the 1970s.

One example, Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), established itself as a conservation organization in 1970.  Through its “municipal program” (1975-77), the statewide land trust determined that conservation commissions were very important but local land trusts were also needed to perform the necessary land protection work throughout the state. “Local land trusts (LLTs) can provide response flexibility, confidentiality and credibility that is often lacking on the part of town government,” wrote Earl Ireland in an early planning committee memo to the Land Trust Program.  MCHT began to list “assistance to local land trusts” as part of its services in 1978. A number of other state-wide land trusts formed using that model in other parts of the country.

Ten years ago I conducted a research project on land trust collaboration, which continues to be a topic of discussion at the Land Trust Rally, an annual training event hosted by the Land Trust Alliance. The Land Trust Alliance is a national, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that provides leadership to the local, regional and state wide land trust communities across the country, as well as some international land trusts.

While I focused much of that 2001-2004 study on Maine land trusts, I traveled to meet with land trust and conservation professionals in Wyoming, California and Maryland, and attended the Land Trust Rally to learn about land trust work nationally. I also gained first-hand knowledge by working with Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

What struck me then was the difference in how people thought about “collaboration.” I had assumed that collaboration was a good thing but learned that some people saw it as “giving up” or “giving in,” while others defined it as “working together.” In success stories about local land trusts in Maine that collaborated by merging with neighboring trusts, a regional land trust could take on larger conservation easements, raise more funds, hire more staff, update/digitize maps, etc.  The Land Trust Alliance encouraged this mode of professionalizing land trusts throughout the U.S.. In success stories about local land trusts (LLTs) that collaborated in other ways—through partnerships, shared staff or shared GIS, peer-mentoring programs or regional coalitions, LLTs maintained their local identity and protected more land using ‘whole-place’ planning or a watershed approach and the benefits of working with conservation partners.

Since then, land trusts have turned collectively to the development of state conservation easement statutes and to new challenges, such as addressing climate change. LTA conducted a 2007 survey among land trusts and found that 60% of responding land trusts were incorporating climate change into their conservation action plans and 30% were engaged in influencing climate policy. Learn more about the developments of land trusts and climate change issues on LTA’s website.

ASWM posted a list of land trusts working to protect wetlands and provided a number ofpublications relevant to land conservation work on its website. In addition, visit ASWM’sLocal Wetland Programs page and its “I am a Landowner” page for related information about local governments, local land conservation programs and general information about wetlands protection for landowners.

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Lost Worlds, Lost Wetlands

Mesopotamia is argued by many historians to be one of the “cradles of civilization.” Historically, the Marsh Arabs depended on the marshlands of the region for 5,000 years, going all the way back to ancient Sumeria. These wetlands show up in epic poetry of early Mesopotamia:

‘Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there’.
– ‘He who saw the Deep’,
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1,200 B.C.)

Most of the marshes of Mesopotamia, including the delta plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in the Middle East, were destroyed by the year 2000. The marshes were lost to hydro-engineering for dams (flood control and electricity), canals and reservoirs (irrigation, farming), all of which reduced the annual floods, which used to renew the waters in the wetlands. The once-thriving marshlands have dried out due to a 20-50% decrease in the flow of water from the major rivers throughout the region. In addition, Saddam Hussein drained large wetlands to punish the tribes—Marsh Arabs—living in those areas and to expose the rebel hiding places, in the 1990s.http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/
Features/WorldOfChange/iraq.php

A number of international organizations pulled together to bring attention to the loss of wetlands there, including World Wildlife Fund, which recorded over 278 species of bird in the Mesopotamian ecoregion. Nearly half of those identified are wetland birds. http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/ecoregions/mesopotamian_delta_marshes.cfm A marsh restoration project through the United Nations Environment Program began in 2006. For an image of the Vanishing Marshes of Mesopotamia, go to: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=1716 For a technical report,http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/1000/1716/meso2.pdf

For those who research archaeological use of wetlands for agriculture, the Mayan use of the “seasonal swamp,” known as el Bajo la justa,” in northern Guatemala is also very interesting. In the latter years of the ancient Mayan culture, archeologists surmise that the Mayans must have expanded the way they farmed the lowlands, including wetlands, in order to support a larger population. But this has been a subject of much debate: whether these “bajos” (interior wetlands) were used for agricultural purposes. A 1995 study by T. Patrick Culbert funded by the University of Arizona looked this issue: http://www.famsi.org/reports/94033/94033Culbert01.pdf

Last fall an issue of Nature featured new findings. A study identified more evidence that wetlands were used for agriculture by the Mayans: The new “research suggests that the Maya built canals between wetlands to divert water and create new farmland,” according to Timothy Beach, a physical geographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. Archaeologists often explore the question of any ancient civilization, how did they feed a large population? The answer for the Mayans was wetlands.
http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101105/full/news.2010.587.html For more background information on the history of Maya agriculture and the role of wetlands, go to: http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_agriculture.htm

Finally, I’ll leave you with something fun to ponder: the true whereabouts of the lost city of Atlantis. Is it buried in the marshlands of Spain after all?  According to a new film, Finding Atlantis, on National Geographic (TV channel), a documentary-maker from Hartford University in CT has proposed just that. To find out how to see the film, visit: http://channel.nationalgeographic.
com/episode/finding-atlantis-4982/Overview
 and come a little closer to understanding one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Yet again, the answer to the riddle could be wetlands. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/8381219/Lost-city-of-Atlantis-buried-in-Spanish-wetlands.html

From the Bog to the Thanksgiving Table…

I can’t imagine having Thanksgiving without cranberries. My mother’s recipe for cranberry-orange relish is tangy and delicious. I admit to liking the canned cranberry “sauce” that I was always in charge of slicing and displaying on a plate as a child, along with making “bugs on a log” with celery sticks, peanut butter and raisins. Now that I’m a little more aware of some of the issues with commercial cranberry production, I try to buy organic cranberry juice and berries.

According to Dr. Leonard Perry at University of Vermont, the cranberry is a native American wetland plant that is grown in open bogs and marshes from Newfoundland to western Ontario and as far south as Virginia and Arkansas. Massachusetts is the leading producer (with about half of the total U.S. crop), followed by Wisconsin and New Jersey. The berries are harvested in October just in time for Thanksgiving. http://www.uvm.edu/
pss/ppp/articles/cranbery.htm

When Native Americans harvested wild cranberries, they gathered them along stream banks and in natural bogs. Today’s commercial cranberry bogs are typically placed in areas where there is a perched water table with cedar swamps and peat bogs. The tannin and organic acid that leaches out of those swamps produces the acid soils essential for cranberry production. http://www.northjersey.com/news/70597727.html

Because cranberries require so much water and a particular pH balance in the soils, both commercial and organic cranberry production has a big impact on wetlands. For a good photo tour on how cranberries are grown, visit:http://www.itsaruby.com/
Photo%20Tour%201.htm
 Sometimes inactive cranberry bogs are converted to “native wetland habitat” like this one that was recently restored in Plymouth, Mass.: http://www.wickedlocal.com/plymouth/
news/x1312011646/Restoring-the-Eel-River

Organic cranberry bogs are remarkable because of the intense manual labor involved. One couple in Oregon has adopted a sustainable practice of harvesting cranberries from a bog: http://www.oregonlive.com/O/index.ssf/2009/11/taste_
from_their_bog_to_your_t.html

Each year, a unique beverage called “bog juice” is sold at the Common Ground Fair in Maine. Not to be confused with the alcoholic concoction involving snake scales, the Maine version of bog juice comes from an organic cranberry farm near Ellsworth. Bog juice is made from the crushed, pulpy cranberries, water and maple syrup.http://www.diaryofalocavore.com/2008/09/common-ground-fair.html For more about the Common Ground Fair and organic farms in Maine, visit: http://www.mofga.org/
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  Ocean Spray has even adopted the “bog juice” nickname for one of their recent advertising campaigns: http://cgi.ebay.com/Ocean-Spray-promo-shirt-Straight-From-the-Bog-juice-LG_
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