Land Protection – it starts with relationship building

We are pleased to bring you the third (and final) installment of our short series of articles by the Land Trust’s Conservation staff. In April we heard from Land Manager Courtney Bornsworth about how the Land Trust manages and maintains the properties that it owns. In May, Conservation Director Mike Auger highlighted the Land Trust’s stewardship role in the conservation easement partnership. This month, we are delighted to hear from Land Protection Specialist Michele Canale. Michele’s work is complicated, and occurs mostly behind the scene. Her ability to handle the nuts and bolts of protecting land while cultivating meaningful relationships across the region is absolutely key to the success of the Land Trust.

From Michele…

In my work as the North Olympic Land Trust’s Land Protection Specialist, my focus is on land transactions, which is basically implementing land protection. All staff at the Land Trust support the land protection aspect of our work in one way or another, but I am essentially akin to a real estate agent, with conservation of land as the focus. 

A lot of my work focuses on conservation easements that are placed on private property. We also acquire land fee-simple (outright). We only work with willing landowners, and every project we do should be like a marriage, particularly if it’s a conservation easement. You want it to be a good match and you don’t want too much compromise. Our conservation work is forever and it’s a serious decision. So, with a conservation easement in particular, our number one goal is a happy landowner, but we also have to balance the goals of the Land Trust. To continue the analogy of marriage, the Land Trust needs to be one of the happy partners. And, like a marriage, it takes some work, which really happens through the easement stewardship, which you heard all about from Mike last month. He’s the one who does that long-term work after I propose, plan the wedding, and am part of the ceremony. 

Land Trust staff and landowners at a recent closing

We have land protection and evaluation criteria that we update every few years. It is updated when planning efforts are updated or finished, when we have a new strategic plan, or when, after years of use, we see multiple reasons why an update is needed. One of the projects recently funded by our Resilient Rivers campaign is a property on the Clallam River. That project had a high score for location because it’s within one of our focal areas and is part of a wildlife corridor. It scored 10 out of 10 for habitat because 99% of the property provides valuable fish habitat, more than 25% of the property is wetland, there is over ½ a mile of the Clallam River and a tributary, a majority of the property is floodplain or floodway, and conservation of the property is a priority in a conservation plan. It scored 10 out of 10 for its forest conservation values because it is compatible with our Forest Conservation Ethic, 100% of the property is forestland, and all development rights are being extinguished with our ownership. It scored an 8 out of 10 for fish habitat. The implementation and feasibility consideration was a “yellow,” indicating some caution, because we needed grant funding to acquire the land (which we received), and we also needed to fundraise for the stewardship contribution, which has been recently accomplished with the Resilient Rivers initiative. 

In addition to using our own criteria, we also look to the criteria of our funding sources. Many of our projects rely on state or federal funding, and they have very specific requirements and criteria for their projects. It’s important we carefully match government grants with relevant projects – this helps us have a high government grant success rate, and it ensures we use our time wisely. Furthermore, if government funding isn’t an option, we may rely on foundations, corporations, individuals and community support to meet our funding needs. That’s where you all come in! 

Michele crossing a log during a site visit

To select, explore, and evaluate projects, I use GIS (geographic information system). I use a lot of the same data available on Clallam County’s interactive mapping website, as well as other sources of data we have been collecting over the years. I also use our conservation plans to select and evaluate projects. The most recent conservation planning effort centered on the climate resiliency of properties in both Clallam and Jefferson County. 

After doing desk-based research, we also visit properties in person.  If possible, I invite multiple staff members and also often invite members of our Board of Directors and/or Conservation Committee. The Conservation Committee is one of the committees that our Board has designated to review projects staff works on, and as such is very involved in the whole selection and evaluation process. 

There are many steps between selecting a project and closing the deal. We order title reports and work with our attorney to make sure there are no title “clouds,” which are basically encumbrances that need to be addressed before closing. If a landowner has a mortgage, we need to start talking to the lender about whether they will subordinate to the conservation easement, or we need to make sure the loan will be paid off at or before closing. Another step is making sure that there are no environmental contaminants, usually through a Phase I site assessment. We also might have a cultural resource assessment completed, if there is any restoration that is ground disturbing. If there is confirmed or potential archeological resources, it will likely influence the direction of the project. 

Other steps in the process involve working collaboratively with many partners, including local tribes. We are currently working closely with the Makah Tribe on some land acquisition projects in the Hoko River watershed, on the west end. We are also working with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe on a project in Clallam Bay, and we are working with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe on a project on the Dungeness River. Our partners are critical to the success of projects. 

Depending on whether we need to apply for grant funding, our process can take many years. Our State accepts grant applications every other year, awards the funding the following year, and we usually need at least a year with the funding to close the project. 

laptop and files in a landowner’s kitchen

Once the lengthy process is complete, and we are sitting at the title company signing closing documents, my work is essentially done. (At least for that project!) It can often feel anticlimactic because so much work has gone into the project over the years and the signing is a few strokes of the pen. However, it is a great feeling. 

My favorite part of the process is sitting at people’s kitchen tables, eating their homemade cookies, and talking through whatever stage of the process we are at. Some landowners have their signature cookies. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting the Burdicks, you probably have had Karolyn’s Ranger Cookies. If you’ve ever spent time with the Mantooths, you’ve probably had Robbie’s Real Cookies. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily made that impossible, but I hope to be back at landowners’ kitchen tables soon!

You can find the Ranger and Real cookie recipes here!