In Land We Trust

By Katy Heggen on August 26, 2019 in Blog

Iowa may not be the first state to come up in conversations about national conservation. There are no mountains here. No coastlines. No towering redwoods, everglades or yawning canyons. But as those that have spent time exploring Iowa’s outdoors know, there’s much beauty to be found here. But even those with a deep love and appreciation for Iowa’s outdoors may not realize the role Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s protection of these wild places has played in the protection of other natural areas far beyond Iowa’s borders.

A Strong Foundation

In October of 1981, INHF’s Gerry Schnepf and Mark Ackelson made their way to Cambridge, Mass., for the National Consultation on Local Land Conservation. Schnepf was the first president of INHF, which was founded just two years earlier in 1979, and Ackelson was one of the first three staffers. Ackelson would later serve as president from 1994-2013.

“A guy named Kingsbury Browne took a sabbatical from his law firm because he kept hearing about these land trusts. He went across the country and discovered land trusts that might be in the river valley adjacent to another one, and didn’t know that the other one existed. He found that all across the country. So he brought us together,” Ackelson said. “Out of that meeting, virtually spontaneously, grew this need to create some kind of national association.”

Though they didn’t know it at the time, Schnepf and Ackelson were among those in attendance at what would later come to be known as the “founding” meeting of the Land Trust Exchange, now known as the Land Trust Alliance (the Alliance). INHF was one of the four initial incorporators of the Alliance, joining the Brandywine Conservancy (Pennsylvania), Land Trust of Napa County (California) and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Ackelson served as the second board chair for the Alliance.

Today, the Alliance serves as the collective voice of the land trust community, representing more than 1,100 land trusts – including INHF – supported by 5 million members nationwide.

“INHF has been and continues to be a leader in the land trust community,” said Tammara Van Ryn, founding executive director of the Land Trust Accreditation Commission (the Commission), an independent program created by the Alliance. “The entire history of INHF, save for those first two years, is intertwined with the collective history of land trusts across the country. INHF has been pulling together the land trust community since its beginnings.”


Building Community

Since those early days, INHF has remained a leader within the Alliance, the Commission and the land trust community on the whole.

“Beyond its impressive legacy of conservation in Iowa, I most appreciate INHF’s commitment to contributing time and talents to the broader land trust community,” said the Alliance President Andrew Bowman. “Perhaps because of this, INHF is one of the land trusts that everyone in our community knows, and there are good reasons for that. INHF exemplifies leadership qualities.”

Several staff serve in appointed positions within the land trust community, including on the Land Trust Alliance Leadership Council and the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, shaping national standards, policies and strategies. They also represent INHF and other land trusts in leadership positions within other facets of the conservation community ranging from sporting groups to trail advocates to volunteer wildfire crews.

“We cannot afford to operate in a vacuum,” said INHF President Joe McGovern. “We’re all in this together, from local conservation to national, even international conservation.”

Connecting Lands

Just as habitats differ from region-to-region, so do the approaches to protecting those lands. As such, opportunities to learn about what land trusts are doing elsewhere – and to share what INHF is doing in Iowa – are invaluable.

INHF staff routinely attend and present on a range of topics at national conferences, including Rally, the Alliance’s annual National Land Conservation Conference which draws more than 1,800 land trust professionals each year, as well as other conferences throughout Iowa and the Midwest.

Conservation can be lonely work,” said Bowman. “Being able to tap into the lessons learned, expertise and even resources of others from across the country makes us all stronger.”

From the Golden Dome to D.C.

Early on, INHF and others in the land trust community recognized the importance of advocating for federal policies and programs that support conservation through a land trust lens.

With the founding of the Alliance, local efforts to influence federal legislation converged. While the Alliance acts as the land trust community’s voice on Capitol Hill, individual land trusts continue to play an integral role in shaping the policies that shape our lands.

From a series of proposed reforms in the early 2000s that helped keep land trusts and key federal tax incentives for conservation intact, to weighing in on the 2018 farm bill – the single largest source of federal funding for land conservation, to continuing to work on ending federal tax incentive abuses, INHF has always maintained a presence in D.C. and at home.

“Policies can take conservation in different directions – for better or for worse,” said INHF Public Policy Director Anna Gray. “We look at policy as a conservation tool, one that we can use to protect and restore the land, just as we used prescribed fire or prairie reconstruction.”

While INHF communicates with its colleagues at the Alliance about national issues on an ongoing basis and is a regular fixture at the Alliance’s Advocacy Days, an annual week-long lobbying event, it’s perhaps the relationships INHF has been able to establish with key policymakers that have had the greatest impact.

“You guys have a really good relationship with your delegation,” said the Alliance Government Relations Director Lori Faeth. “It’s such a great land trust and it’s in a really important part of the country policy-wise. You have key members of Congress and you have access to them.”

Bound by the Land

Just as nature knows no borders, neither does the nature of conservation. While INHF’s contributions to conservation on the national scale have evolved over the years, the guiding philosophy for this work – for all of INHF’s work – that together, we do more, remains unchanged.

“I think what to me is remarkable is that over multiple decades, different organizational challenges, staff changes and all that, INHF has always made the commitment to participate in and contribute its strength to the larger land trust community, and the community is better for it,” said Van Ryn.