In New Jersey, there are an estimated 43 land trusts supported by 50,000 members. While few of these organizations have a regional or statewide focus, a growing number of new land trusts are community-based, which offer a unique opportunity to augment municipal land conservation efforts.

Harding Land Trust is focused solely on land preservation in Harding Township. While this may create an impediment to building a large membership and increasing financial support, it does enable us to carefully target our resources to achieving our mission in Harding.

Locally, there is some confusion about the seemingly duplicative role played by the Harding Land Trust and Harding Township’s own open space program (Harding Open Space Trust). As you read on, I hope you will see how complimentary they are and, by working collaboratively, we have been able to make the most of local tax dollars. Over time, this partnership has reduced Township’s costs for land acquisition and stewardship, while enabling it to maintain the Township’s rural character in a way that supports Harding Township’s Municipal Master Plan.

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Open space preservation is a central theme in Harding Township’s Master Plan and the Land Trust’s mission was developed to support the Township’s stated open space goals. One often understated advantage of having a local land trust, is the ability to “double the funding” for conservation projects. While Harding Open Space Trust (HOST) has funding from the municipal open space tax, Harding Land Trust can attract matching funds from State and County sources that can be used in addition to the Township’s contribution. Without the financial leveraging this partnership provides it would be much more difficult for public funds to keep up with Harding land values. In addition, Land Trust staff provide much of the day to day administration on open space acquisition projects, which can be very time consuming and costly. For example, on the recent von Zuben project, Harding Land Trust expended $35,000 on legal fees, survey work, environmental assessment and appraisals to get the deal done. This does not include our staff time dedicated to managing the process. This minimized the Township’s soft costs and enabled Harding’s funds to be used solely for the purpose of land acquisition.

As a non-governmental entity, Harding Land Trust provides a confidential environment to discuss conservation with potential land donors. We have an intimate connection with the local landscape and are well-equipped to identify land that offers critical natural habitat, recreational, agricultural and other conservation value. Land preservation is much more personal with a local, community-based land trust. We value the relationships we have with Harding landowners, some of which have developed over many years.

From a stewardship standpoint, we make it our business to know what is happening on and around all of our properties. We not only conduct annual monitoring on our own fee properties, but we also extend this service to properties that are co-owned with Harding Township. We maintain active stewardship files that include annual reports and photographic documentation from each monitoring site visit. Our Trustees take a very active role in the monitoring and this experience helps them understand some of the complexities associated with long-term management. Each month Land Trust staff and Trustees make decisions about where to spend our valuable stewardship dollars. More recently, we have successfully experimented with volunteer-supported maintenance, which has enabled us to do so much more with limited funds.

Speaking of funding, Harding Land Trust has a strong record of accessing grants and expertise within the conservation community, many of which are not available to municipalities. Harding Land Trust is currently working under a $20,000 contract for habitat restoration activities on two of our fee properties. We work closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and New Jersey Audubon on establishing restoration goals for our land. Management needs vary widely from property to property, and we are guided by the conservation goals established at the time of purchase. These goals reflect both the land donors’ wishes and the responsible stewardship of public assets.

When a property is preserved either by donation or through the use of open space funds, a legal contract is made to preserve the property for perpetuity. Although community interests can shift and politics will change, land trusts and municipalities must work together to ensure that the necessary systems and strategies are in place for the future. In Harding, the partnership between the Land Trust and the Township has been very successful. Through mutual trust and support much has been accomplished over the last 20 years and as a consequence, much of Harding’s rural character has been preserved. It’s hard to argue with the methods or the result.

I recently returned from the annual Land Trust Rally, where I joined 1,800 conservation leaders in Hartford, Connecticut to share land preservation strategies. One of the most interesting aspects of the gathering is sharing stories about what we all have in common: working with people within our communities to save the land we love. Harding Land Trust’s mission and passion for keeping Harding rural is not subject to shifting political winds, or municipal budget constraints. We are HERE, and we are planning for PERPETUITY. I hope you will continue your support for the preservation of Harding’s natural infrastructure. You can help by becoming a member and by supporting continued funding for open space acquisition in Harding. Please tell your elected officials why open space is important to Harding residents.