Making Change: Land Trust Merger: Shaping the Landscape of Northeast Ohio

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From the rolling hills of Geauga County to the fertile farmland of Wayne to the marshy coastline of Sandusky Bay, the diversity of Northeast Ohio's landscape is one of its chief attractions. That rich diversity is what first brought settlers to the lands of the Western Reserve. But in recent years, the character of our rural landscape has changed. Housing developments mushroom where orchards once bloomed and strip malls sprout along rural routes. Towns that once stood surrounded by cornfields have spread into the countryside, until only signs mark the boundary between one community and another.

Chris Knopf, who directs the Cleveland field office of the Trust for Public Land, says sprawl is changing forever the landscape we once knew.

Chris Knopf: In Ohio we've had over the last 40 years an increase in population of about 17%. However during that same period the amount of land that has been converted from rural to urban or developed land has increased 87%.

That's a rate of urbanization five times the rate of population growth. Rural land trusts working to preserve the farmland, forests and river valleys that give our land its character have scarcely made a dent in this transformation. But that could be about to change.

Rich Cochran: On January 1st we'll have a regional land conservancy up and running whose goal is to protect more land, more strategically, and in less time than we could as individual operating land trusts.

Rich Cochran is director of the Chagrin River Land Conservancy. Just over a year ago, his organization began to explore ways the region's many land trusts could operate more effectively. The result is what Cochran believes may be the largest merger of land preservation groups in the country. Next year eight Northeast Ohio land trusts will become the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

Rich Cochran: Our vision is to have 2,000 and 10,000 acres anchors in the landscape, huge anchors like the national park, the South Chagrin Reservation, West Woods out in Geauga County, and the big state parks out in the Firelands area, and then have those grow in size and then have them linked with linear corridors of protected land.

Cochran believes that a single, regional land trust will have more access to money like Great Lakes restoration funds, to set aside land that will help protect water quality and preserve habitat for wildlife. He says that could help attract more knowledge workers to the area, the so-called creative class that values the emotional and recreational benefits of green space. Kate Pilacky, director of the Firelands Land Conservancy, says a larger organization will also ensure that conservation easements designed to keep land in its current use will be honored by future generations.

Kate Pilacky: Really, the landowners are interested in preserving their land in perpetuity and an organization that's all volunteer or has one paid staff member may be here tomorrow - and maybe not.

But keeping the landscape intact is a tall order, even for a land trust as large as the Western Reserve will be. And while land trusts can help existing parks and preserves to grow, much of the land they protect is private, with no public access. Chris Knopf of the Trust for Public Land believes it will take both private and public resources to achieve a regional vision for land conservation.

Chris Knopf: If we were to do land conservation throughout the entire Northeast Ohio region, it would be something on the order of the Jake and the Q in Cleveland.

It's a daunting prospect, but one that excites conservationists like Knopf and Rich Cochran. Cochran believes that working together, private conservation efforts can help leverage new resources from state and federal funds, as well as from private donors.

Rich Cochran: It allows us to preserve important natural areas and that's important to some people, it allows us to preserve farmland and that's important to some people. But I think the overarching concern that everybody shares is how does it feel when we're here? This allows us collectively as a region to preserve the character of our region. And I think that's important to everybody.

It may take a year or two for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to reorganize its staff and prioritize projects. But conservationists believe the new regional land trust has the potential to become a powerful force for preserving the Northeast Ohio landscape for generations to come. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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