Land Trusts

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Land Trusts

Land Trusts can be defined as "private, nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organizations that use a variety of mechanisms to protect land resources.[1]." Since land trusts are dependent on locally donated or acquired lands, they are indicative as to which local landscapes are prioritized by local conservationists. While land trusts are nonprofit organizations and are typically thought of as small-scale operations, their popularity has lead to about a quarter of land trusts in Wisconsin boasting a budget of over 250,000 dollars a year[2]. Over the past few decades land trusts have proven to be extremely popular, and not just strictly for environmental concerns, as they are useful tools for blocking unwanted development that could lead to higher taxes for local residents or strain on local infrastructure[3]. But as land trusts continue to rise today in popularity, so too do their legal fees and conflicts with public and private property owners that encroach or dispute land trust boundaries.

Private Management of Land Trusts

A method known as "conservation easement" has become an increasingly attractive option for those wishing to use their lands for conservation efforts, but do not wish to necessarily give up their land entirely. In this process, the land effectively gives up the right to develop the land, but still retains ownership and is granted certain tax benefits.[4] In some cases land trusts will enter negotiations with land-owners that actually plan on selling some of their land to developers. These land trusts might secure a promise from the land-owner that, while certain portions of their land might be sold off, the land owner still places the majority of the land under conservation easement.

Origins of Land Trusts in Wisconsin

In 1937, Albert Fuller and Jens Jensen, along with other citizens of Wisconsin, formed the Ridges Sanctuary. This would be Wisconsin’s first land trust, sparking a wave of conservation centered on the Door County peninsula. Fuller and Jensen were joined by such influential figures as Emma Toft and Aldo Leopold, who helped spark a wave of conservation enthusiasm across the state of Wisconsin. The whirlwind of activity spearheaded by The Ridges Sanctuary eventually leading to the creation of the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas, a program dedicated to protecting endangered wildlife in Wisconsin and their habitats[5]. That same Board would evolve into the State Natural Areas Program, today presently responsible for the protection of 90% of the endangered plant and 75% of the endangered animal species in Wisconsin[6]

Jens Jensen

Jens Jensen proved to be a pivotal figure in shaping the conservation efforts taking place in Wisconsin in the early 20th century. Jensen stood out among conservationists for taking a stance different from both John Muir and Gifford Pinocht; he both rejected keeping wilderness as a completely separate and sacred entity (the former) and thinking of wilderness mostly as a resource to be carefully managed for regulated consumption[7]. Jensen placed an emphasis on how local landscapes each have a unique character, and that everyday interaction with nature helps shape someone's identity[8]. Jensen believed that the land itself could be intertwined with the distinct character of the given location, adding a unique feeling to nature[9]. With this focus on local connections with the wilderness, it is unsurprising that Jens Jensen joined The Ridges Sanctuary and assisted with its acquisition of local lands for the land trust.

Contemporary Issues

As mentioned earlier, land trusts have become increasingly popular in recent decades as a way for land owners to take part in conservation efforts all across the country, including in Wisconsin. However, there is also a trend of higher estates and death taxes creating a class of "land rich, cash poor" individuals that being put into compromising situations where selling lands ideal for conservation to developers or the government is the only viable option[10] Several states, including Wisconsin, have abolished the death tax to allow land to change hands between generations without forcing new land-owners to sell their lands immediately to developers.

Along with the explosion of land trusts from the 80's and onward, legal fees related to land trust lawsuits or disagreements have similarly climbed. In a survey conducted by the Land Trust Alliance and the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, almost half of the surveyed land trusts reported legal issues "of any significance."[11] Of these legal issues, the average cost totaled $37,700, although one case reached a cost of over $400,000[12]. While these legal fees can be handled through cooperation with organizations linking land trusts, or just handle the legal fees on their own, these fees are not inconsequential. A 1/4th of the land trusts that experienced legal complications would have followed up with further action if they had received more funds, implying that for some of these land trusts, current legal fees are impacting their budget in significant ways.[13]


  1. Elfring, Chris. 1989. “Preserving Land Through Local Land Trusts”. Bioscience 39 (2). [American Institute of Biological Sciences, Oxford University Press]: 71–74. doi:10.2307/1310903. 71
  2. Elfring. "Preserving Land" 72
  3. Sundberg, Jeffrey O.. 2006. “Private Provision of a Public Good: Land Trust Membership”. Land Economics 82 (3). [Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, University of Wisconsin Press]: 353–66. 353
  4. Elfring. "Preserving Land" 73
  5. "History of The Ridges Sanctuary," The Ridges Sanctuary, accessed April 28 2016.
  6. "History of The Ridges Sanctuary," The Ridges Sanctuary, accessed April 28 2016.
  7. Tishler, William H., and Erik M. Ghenoiu. 2003. “Conservation Pioneers: Jens Jensen and the Friends of Our Native Landscape”. The Wisconsin Magazine of History 86 (4). Wisconsin Historical Society: 2–15. 4
  8. Tishler and Ghenoiu, "Conservation Pioneers". 6-7.
  9. Tishler and Ghenoiu, "Conservation Pioneers". 8.
  10. Gattuso, Dana Joel. "Conservation Easements: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." The National Center for Public Policy Research. May 2008.
  11. Rissman, Adena R. "Conservation Defense and Enforcement in the Land Trust Community." Land Trust Alliance. 2011.
  12. Rissman."Conservation Defense"
  13. Rissman."Conservation Defense"

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