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What is a Land Trust?

Chances are, there’s one where you live. With more protected acres than the National Park Service, land trusts are key in protecting land from development and setting aside some of the best running land in the country.

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As a trail runner, you probably spend a lot of time on public lands, especially if you (like me) live in the West. In states like Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, access to incredible running terrain is pretty easy to come by.

And there are a lot of different ways that land comes to be available to us. Maybe it’s in a national park, wildlife preserve, national forest or even a local city park. But some of the least understood and most vital land preservation tools are local land trusts across the U.S.

The Land Trust Alliance, a coalition of more than 1,000 local land trusts across the country, reported in December that 61 million acres had been conserved by land trusts by the end of 2020. That total encompasses more protected acreage than the entire National Park Service, says Justin Barth, an avid runner and director of development at my own local land trust, Gallatin Valley Land Trust in Bozeman, Montana.

Primarily, land trusts protect privately-owned land from development and subdivision. But depending on the values of the landowner, putting acreage in trust can also have specific designations for public access, meaning more protected trails and wild spaces for running.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for land trusts who occasionally get to work with landowners who want to allow public access to those private lands for recreation like trail running,” says Barth.

So, land trusts are responsible for a huge amount of habitat protection and wilderness maintenance across the country. But what are they, and how do they actually work?


What is a Land Trust?

Each land trust is a little bit different, says Barth, based on their geographic location and the land uses in their area. They can be statewide or focused on an entire region, or can have very specific purviews, like a portion of the Redwoods or even a single stream. But their missions remain aligned to a simple-sounding goal: working with private landowners to conserve their land for future generations.

The most common tool for carrying out that mission is a conservation easement, a complex legal and real estate agreement that restricts what uses land can be put toward, determined by the landowner and the trust. This is where a deep familiarity with the land becomes critical; not all land can be put under easement, based on where it is or what it’s used for. For instance, says Barth, acreage inside city limits likely won’t be a good fit for an easement, because that land might be needed for infrastructure, housing or other urban uses later.

“One of the beautiful things about land trusts is that they all have a really intimate connection with the land and the region that they work in,” says Barth. “It’s that familiarity with the land that helps us understand that some lands are better for growing potatoes than condos. Some are better for maintaining elk habitat than for trail systems. And some are a perfect fit for a pre-work trail run with your friends.”

Because land trusts work mostly with private landowners, not all conservation easements are open for public access, especially those designed specifically for the protection of certain wildlife or used as agricultural land. But many easements contain stipulations that the land be open for recreation, including biking, running or hunting. 

Once an easement is created and agreed upon, the owner can still live on, farm and even sell their land or pass it on to future generations. The one thing they can’t do is subdivide it. And since conservation easements are perpetual, they last forever: once it’s under an easement, that land is permanently protected, no matter who owns or uses it.

“Even though some of our easements don’t allow public access, they still provide so much value to our community,” says Barth. “They help protect water quality, wildlife habitat, our food systems and many other values like climate resiliency. It’s really the work of a land trust with landowners to decide which lands are best protected for wild open space versus human access.”

In western mountain cities like Bozeman, where populations are booming and real estate markets are hot, land trusts serve the critical purpose of conserving exactly what it is that drew many of those people in the first place: open spaces, natural habitats, mountains, valleys and areas for recreation.


What Can I Do?

Obviously, not everyone has 50 or 100 acres they can put under a conservation easement. But there are a few key ways runners can get involved with the work that land trusts do.

  • Find your local land trust: The Land Trust Alliance created the “Find a Land Trust” online tool so that you can see which of the more than 1,200 land trusts in the U.S. is closest to you. Plug in your zip code and see where your nearest land trusts are at 
  • Donate: Land trusts are heavily influenced by local real estate trends, and conservation easements can be expensive legal agreements. Even small philanthropic donations can make a big difference when it comes to protecting your local lands. 
  • Volunteer: My local land trust has a trail-building component, and there’s a good chance yours does too! Many land trusts host trail days, where you can join members of your community maintaining and cleaning up existing trails or building new ones. You’ll meet others in your area who love the trails as much as you do, and you’ll get a firsthand look at what makes the work of land trusts so important. “Once you see what it takes to maintain a quarter mile of trail, you’ll be more inspired to support that land trust,” says Barth.