Community-centered conservation: Meeting local needs for land and people

Community-centered conservation offers an opportunity to reach more people than ever before, by doing land conservation in new, different and more inclusive ways to connect with those in the diverse places that we live.

By Jennifer Miller Herzog January 23

This piece originally appeared in "The Ozark Holler," the newsletter of the accredited Ozark Land Trust.


Community-centered conservation is part of a growing movement across the land conservation sector. It offers an opportunity to reach more people than ever before, by doing land conservation in new, different and more inclusive ways to connect with those in the diverse places that we live. Land trusts all over the nation, familiar with the specific needs and goals of their local and regional constituents, are expanding and adapting their approach to reach and engage more people than ever in their communities — especially those who haven’t seen and felt the benefits of land conservation in their lives so far.

There are as many different community-centered conservation strategies as there are communities, primarily because the needs of those communities are a unique blend of circumstances and characteristics that include ecology, demographics, socio-economic conditions, and cultural and political history. Because of that reality, five attributes of effective community-based strategies are that they are inclusive, connective, authentic, responsive and engaged.

The community-centered approach meets people where they are, is based on relationships and not simply transactions, engages expertise and wisdom based within the community, and focuses on community-centered process to craft solutions collaboratively rather than driving toward a specific, predetermined outcome. In other words, it’s not just what we do, but how we do it.

In the process, land trusts and their staffs and boards are learning and bringing new competencies, sensibilities, perspectives and skills into their work to achieve inspiring results. Here are just a few examples of how several land trusts are engaging their communities in new ways.

Food Security

The accredited Kestrel Land Trust has a long history of protecting farmland in its region of western Massachusetts. But they’ve expanded their approach to address the challenge of food security and access to farmland for refugee and immigrant farmers in their community by partnering with a local nonprofit to find and acquire farmland for 60 multi-generational families.

By using their expertise in land protection and stewardship to meet urgent community needs, Kestrel is building new partnerships and raising its profile — while maintaining knowledge and connections to the land and helping to grow their community’s next generation of farmers.

Seniors

The accredited Santa Fe Conservation Trust partners with the New Mexico state health and aging/long-term services departments, Big Brothers Big Sisters, AARP, a local medical center and several local seniors programs and facilities to host ¡Vámonos!, a free urban walking program. The program gets people outside and increases access to the outdoors, improves health, increases social opportunities for seniors and builds community, all while making new friends for the land trust. Vámonos resources are published in both English and Spanish.

Veterans

The accredited Five Valleys Land Trust in Montana has partnered with military veterans’ group Team Rubicon to improve forest management on conserved lands and connect veterans to the land, each other and the community. While helping the land trust meet its stewardship goals, the program also helps Team Rubicon hone its chainsaw and other unique skills to maintain its readiness to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies across the country.

Universal Access

The accredited Land Conservancy of West Michigan protected the Anderson Woods Nature Preserve and then capitalized on the preserve’s gentle terrain by designing and building a universally accessible trail in partnership with Disability Network/West Michigan. The Preserve provides a rare opportunity to get deep into a serene natural forest for people using wheelchairs, walkers or strollers. Volunteer trail monitors care for the high-maintenance trail surface by removing debris and other obstacles at least weekly.

Indigenous Peoples

The accredited Wallowa Land Trust has partnered with tribal members, the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland and The Nature Conservancy since 2019 to host the Wallowa Gathering, an annual traditional root gathering event that brings people together, heals historic trauma from land dispossession and displacement, and reconnects Indigenous people with their ancestral homelands. Interest has grown each year from both tribal members and landowners welcoming gatherers to access these lands.

While each of these examples represents very different work on the ground, they share the common themes of partnership and creating solutions with partners and users, responsiveness to needs in their communities, and meeting those needs using the technical expertise, networks and resources of land conservation.

When we consider how to build new and durable support for land conservation, who will be America’s future champions for conservation, and how conservation will remain relevant, important and valued by more people in a changing world, taking an intentional, authentic and committed community-centered conservation approach is a win-win-win-win — for people and the land.