Land trusts can play a larger role in re-naturalizing fragmented landscapes

For landscapes that are highly altered and fragmented due to human impact, there is now a growing movement to bring nature back to small spaces wherever the opportunity presents itself.

By Tom Chase, Tripti Thomas-Travers August 10, 2023

For landscapes that are highly altered and fragmented due to human impact, there is now a growing movement to bring nature back to small spaces wherever the opportunity presents itself. This re-naturalization movement spans many goals, from adapting to climate change and improving human health to conserving biodiversity and restoring ecosystem functions for people and wildlife. It plays out across backyards, agricultural lands, municipal properties and small preserves, where efforts such as “backyard programs” are establishing native plant refugia, pollinator patches, rain gardens and more. And the methods that these programs use to re-naturalize small spaces are equally diverse, ranging from direct contact with property owners to influencing municipal regulations, to engaging civic and neighborhood associations. The Village and Wilderness goal is to help local organizations develop more programs like these — we call them microhabitat programs — to serve their communities and ecosystems.

Land trusts are already taking a leadership role in this movement. Many trusts and their supporters have heroically protected open spaces and farmland yet have still witnessed ecosystems and biodiversity decline as the land between conserved areas becomes developed, breaking habitat connectivity. Some land trusts have responded by doubling down on protecting what natural lands remain. Others are focusing on making the non-conserved lands as productive as they can be to recover lost linkages and ecosystem functions: to make the ecosystem whole again, even if natural lands can no longer be contiguous.

Much of the developed land that interrupts connectivity is residential, and this is where more such microhabitat programs are needed. National programs that emphasize bringing nature back to developed land are essential to gradually changing cultural norms — shifting how individuals across the country think backyards should look and function. However, to truly make a positive impact on local ecosystems and to alleviate the ecological impact of fragmentation, re-naturalization efforts need to be strategic, geographically concentrated and driven by the local context.

This is where land trusts come in — because they operate at the local level, where these changes can be most effective. Land trusts have the ability and experience to work directly with local residents and can develop or adopt methods that are most suited to their unique communities and ecosystems. By implementing microhabitat programs, land trusts can have an even larger impact.

What is in it for land trusts to undertake these efforts? We find that in many cases these programs may not only advance a land trust’s conservation mission, but broaden and diversify membership and, in some cases, generate greater capacity for their organizations. Microhabitat programs potentially expose hundreds of additional community members to land trusts and host organizations, expanding the overall base of supporters who then become even more invested because the impact is so tangible in their local communities.

Village and Wilderness support these programs, both established and emerging, through our growing "microhabitat program incubator." The incubator includes three components: an open-access resource center, a network of practitioners, and very soon, a small-grants program.

Our Microhabitat Program Resource Center includes successful practices we’re learning about through programs we’ve interviewed, plus peer-reviewed research, new and noteworthy developments and a growing directory of established programs. Because no two communities or organizations are alike, our case studies and best practices draw from diverse settings, so that any land trust will be able to select strategies that best suit their circumstances. The network we are creating will enable practitioners to share ideas, propose new strategies, pose questions to peers, develop collaborations, recommend publications and refer experts. Finally, our small grants program will include seed funding for new programs, and funding for the expansion of existing programs, all in ways that advance innovation and learning.

The goal: “More programs, better practices.”

If you work with or are connected to a Land Trust Alliance member land trust, please tell us what barriers you face and what resources you would most value in establishing or expanding a microhabitat program by completing this short survey:


Program Examples:

Backyard Habitat Certification Program

Organization(s): Columbia Land Trust and Portland Audubon.

Location: Portland metro area, Oregon.

Mission/description: This collaboration between Columbia Land Trust and Portland Audubon operates under the motto “Plant Roots, Create a Habitat, Transform the World…One Yard at a Time,” tackling yards under 1 acre in size. In its own words, “We’ve teamed up to create a unique program that supports urban gardeners in their efforts to create natural backyard habitats…Together we make our cities a healthier place, for ourselves and for wildlife. Our community of Backyard Habitats is over 9,000 strong, and growing every day.”

Services: Initial site visit, consultation and site report by a trained technician; technical assistance via email and phone; follow-up visit by a trained volunteer for assessment and certification; online tools such as a resource library and lists of qualified landscape professionals.

Goods: Discounts and vouchers at local nurseries and stores; certification and yard signs.

Fees: Enrollment based on a sliding scale starting at $35.


Eastside Pollinator Garden Project

Organization: Eastern Sierra Land Trust

Location: Eastern Sierra, Inyo and Mono Counties, California

Mission/description: The website of the Eastside Pollinator Garden Project, run by the Eastern Sierra Land Trust, states that it helps gardeners throughout Inyo and Mono Counties in California to create and certify their own pollinator-friendly spaces.

Services: In-person site consultation for interested property stewards and a “progress check-in” visit

Goods: 5 milkweed plants (valued at $25) and a voucher for $100 of native plants; Pollinator Garden certification plaque for meeting program criteria after final garden visit

Fees: None

About Village and Wilderness

Village and Wilderness helps community-based organizations invent, share and grow replicable, climate adaptation solutions. Our flagship project is the Microhabitat Program Incubator.

Tom Chase, founder and executive director of Village and Wilderness, has lived and worked in land conservation and restoration for more than 50 years, primarily on Martha’s Vineyard, where his family has multigenerational roots. More than half that time was spent at The Nature Conservancy, acquiring and conserving hundreds of acres of land and amicably resolving some of the Island’s most divisive land use conflicts. Tom’s greatest passion is helping conservation entrepreneurs come together to develop better and more replicable strategies. He views the myriad efforts to re-naturalize the fragmented landscape as a movement — a space of great initiative, innovation and critical need to restore ecosystem services for humans and nature.

Tripti Thomas-Travers, communications manager at Village and Wilderness, is certified in Native Plants and in Horticulture and Design by the Native Plant Trust. A passionate gardener, she came to this work after realizing that her own beloved home garden was an ecological desert. She has dedicated herself to re-naturalizing her yard plant-by-plant and helping others do so at a larger scale through Village and Wilderness and other efforts.

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