published Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Trusts to preserve treasured land

In an era of rising population, increasing sprawl and ever heavier burdens on natural resources, many citizens can now envision that the rolling farmlands we love, the forests we hike and hunt, and the clear streams in the woods we treasure will continue to vanish.

The open land we cherish is being chopped into subdivisions. Charming country lanes are widened for commercial use, adorned by billboards and festooned with fast-food stops. Precious agricultural land on the urban fringe is becoming more rare.

It doesn’t have to be entirely this way. Land trusts and conservation easements provide property owners who want to preserve their farms, fields and forest land a way to keep those lands as they are in perpetuity. Such trusts accomplish owners’ heart-felt preservation goals by granting government-approved property tax relief and charitable tax deductions for the commercial value of the property in exchange for permanent conservation agreements that limit development.

Ownership of the land held in such trusts remains in the hands of the owner and heirs, but the conservation agreement continues down the line.

Such land trust easements are making land conservation increasingly possible, even as governments’ ability to buy land outright for preservation has been sundered by the recession.

Board members of the Land Trust for Tennessee, one of the state’s premier non-profit, land trust organizations, are gathering here today to celebrate conservation agreements achieved by the Trust’s Southeast Region office since it opened two years ago.

Among the achievements are five easements in Hamilton County covering 369 acres, including a 206-acre working farm and an 87-acre driving route of the Trial of Tears along Highway 60 in Georgetown. Along the same highway in adjoining Meigs County, another agreement covers 134 acres of a Trail of Tears driving route.

In McMinn, Polk and Bradley, the Southeast office has concluded conservation easements for large, significant working farms, some more than 100 years old. The 693-acre Mayfield family farm — the original Mayfield Dairies farm — was established in 1820, for example. Under a conservation easement, it will continue to serve Athens as a treasured cultural and historic community resource.

The historic Webb Farm, another property rated the Century Farm designation, is preserving its land as a community resource along the Hiwassee River in Polk County. Nearby is a 393-acre tree farm that provides a buffer for the Cherokee National Forests, the Parksville Lake public recreation area, and the YMCA’s Camp Ocoee. In Knox County, a prior Land Trust agreement protectedthe 420 Cruze Dairy Farm along the French Broad River.

The Land Trust for Tennessee’s office here seamlessly extends the work of the Trust for Public Land, which has mainly developed local, urban greenways and parks, and the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, which focuses specifically on the Gorge.

Tricia King, head of the Land Trust office here, pursues broader preservation goals in critical watersheds and significant but threatened streams, as well as food sheds and agricultural soils. Her office also furthers collaborative work to plot critical natural resources in the path of development related to the Volkswagen plant.

With the state’s preservation budget now eliminated, advocates of the work performed by the Land Trust for Tennessee need public support more than ever. The sustaining grant initially provided by the Benwood Foundation can’t carry the work alone. Citizens who value land conservation can find out more by calling the Chattanooga office (423.364.3268), or go to www.landtrusttn.org.

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