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Trust Our Land: Why Community Conservation Matters

by Bergen Tjossem

Conservation has come a long way since the days of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. Simply acquiring large swaths of land isn’t enough to protect wildlife and other conservation values, nor does it maximize community benefit. What’s changed in conservation since 1903 is a shift towards a new approach focused on people and community. Contemporary conservation problems, like wildlife declines, aren’t rooted in ecological issues; they’re social issues. The rewards of conservation done well, however, are far greater for both people and wildlife. 

In 2016, the Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT) began focusing on a community-centered approach to land conservation and stewardship. As the needs of our human and animal communities evolve, EVLT continually asks “how can we meet the growing challenges facing our community through land conservation and stewardship?” Sometimes, the answer is by saving more land – a key parcel for wildlife migration, a lake that symbolizes a sense of place, or a park that inspires gatherings and spending time outdoors. In other instances, serving the community through land conservation looks like hosting programs and events to encourage participation, access to, and stewardship for our shared outdoor spaces. 


Community Conservation across the country

The community Conservation approach is growing. Across the country, land trusts are finding creative new ways to protect more land and natural resources, while responding to the shifting needs of the humans and animals that inhabit those lands. Since 2019, interest and participation in outdoor recreation has grown exponentially, with 7.1 million more outdoor participants in 2020 than in 2019. Since an increasing number of people are spending time outdoors, the Community Conservation approach asks, “how can we meet the growing demand for outdoor recreation while balancing the needs of wildlife and the protection of sensitive habitat?” 

Other initiatives, like 30×30, a campaign to conserve 30% of US land and water by 2030, are driving increased interest and funding in the conservation sector and creating momentum behind the concept of community-focused conservation. 

The Land Trust Alliance emphasizes Community Conservation as a linchpin in current and enduring land conservation projects; if land conservation efforts today are going to continue to benefit communities in the future, understanding and meeting the needs of diverse constituencies is critical. For conservation efforts to be genuinely effective then, we must listen to diverse partners and orient projects to meet community needs. The future of land conservation is only as vibrant as the investment and engagement of the communities that are impacted by conservation efforts


EVLT’s Work

For the Eagle Valley Land Trust, your local land trust, Community Conservation includes two program areas in addition to conserving and stewarding the lands we love – the Community Land Connection Series and Future Conservationists.

Future Conservationists, EVLT’s signature program for students and youth, is an integral piece of our Community Conservation program. Designed to inspire the next generation of stewards, conservationists, and nature advocates, Future Conservationists guides students in their own backyard – our local protected open spaces – to engage with nature, ponder the merits of protected land, learn what it means to be a steward, and enjoy creative play in the great outdoors that our community has decided to protect forever. 

Future Conservationists youth curriculum is unique in Eagle County – It allows participants to explore nature through a variety of lenses that is approachable to students of all backgrounds, experiences, and interests. It is an opportunity for students to play in nature while considering environmental ethics, experiencing conservation, and learning about wildlife and ecosystems. The program ultimately aims to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards that can carry on a legacy of conservation.

Over the past few years, EVLT has expanded the Future Conservationists program to include opportunities for students at all levels, from kindergarten to Master’s programs. For example, EVLT created an annual graduate capstone project with Colorado State University’s Conservation Leadership program that launched in 2022. Two Master’s students joined EVLT to study and address barriers to accessing open space and protected land for members of our community. Their work will be expanded upon by future students to help EVLT and partners connect people to conservation and meet community needs. Providing meaningful, real-world experience for aspiring conservation professionals is an additional program bonus. 


Community Land Connections

Through the Community Land Connection Series/Serie de Conexión a la Tierra, EVLT facilitates nature-based experiences by providing free programs on conserved properties, such as hikes, horseback rides, snowshoeing, and volunteer restoration opportunities. 

Last summer, the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM) and Eagle Valley Land Trust hosted four community events at Sweetwater Lake. The events, which were made free for all participants thanks to the Sweetwater Stewardship & Equity Fund provided by The Conservation Fund, included hiking, bird watching, and horseback riding with AJ Brink Outfitters around the Lake. 

The programs offered an opportunity for families and individuals to visit and experience the stunning property for the first time. During the bird watching program, representatives from the U.S. Forest Service joined the group to explain the history of the property and provided spotting scopes for bird viewing. During each program, participants had the opportunity to ask questions about the future of the property and become more familiar with how they might continue to enjoy the newly protected land, such as by planning camping trips or returning with canoes. Participants were amazed to discover the natural wonder of the Lake, which, for many, is a mere half-hour from home. Beyond providing an enjoyable day trip, each program empowered participants to return with an understanding of the land’s history, ecology, and significance to our local community.

As our community’s needs have evolved, so too has EVLT’s conservation work. Community conservation is how EVLT works to connect people to the land to amplify our conservation impact. It isn’t a departure from conserving land, the core of EVLT’s work for over 40 years; Community Conservation is an expansion that amplifies the community benefits of conserved land and aims to increase the rate of local land conservation.

Conserved land is for everyone. By better understanding how the values and needs of our community change, our vision and plan for land conservation that touches everyone, two legs or four; pre-school or retired; first generation or fifth, can evolve.

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