“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.
Before there was Ohio, there was the Western Reserve, a 5,200-square-mile section in the northern part of the state that encompassed untamed rivers and an unbroken expanse of forest. Today, that same land is home to more than four million people.
For some, the Western Reserve evokes stories about the pioneers who first came to settle the wilderness of the Ohio. For others, the name is a symbol of the untouched natural beauty of the region because of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the region’s natural areas and farmlands.
The Land Conservancy was formed in 2006 through an unprecedented merger of eight different land trusts who collectively oversaw 8,000 acres of Northern Ohio. Today, the Land Conservancy is the largest land trust in Ohio and one of the top 10 in the nation, permanently preserving more than 530 properties and nearly 40,000 acres and helping revitalize urban neighborhoods throughout the state.
The conservation method primarily used by the Land Conservancy is a legal tool called a conservation easement. A conservation easement is a binding legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified private land conservation organization, or a land trust. The parameters of the easement can vary between the owner and the land trust in question, containing either specific or broad conservation objectives. Examples of these objectives include maintaining water quality, improving the land’s wildlife habitats, or ensuring that scenic vistas are preserved.
The extent to which these objectives must be met by subsequent landowners is variable, but every conservation easement expressly forbids industrial or commercial development. Once a conservation easement is placed on a property it remains in place permanently, even if the land is sold or transferred to another owner. The land trust that holds the easement is responsible for ensuring that the property remains undeveloped. The Land Conservancy maintains strong ties to landowners throughout the region, making annual visits to each property under its protection to make sure that the easement is being upheld.
Running in parallel with the Land Conservancy’s conservation efforts is a program called the Thriving Communities Institute, an effort to revitalize the urban centers of Ohio. The program began in 2011 with the goal of aiding cities working to demolish abandoned, foreclosed and unsafe homes and convert vacant properties into green spaces, parks, and urban farms. Thriving Communities Institute has helped establish 21 county land banks, or county land reutilization corporations, in Ohio. These land banks acquire foreclosed and vacant properties in order to clean their title and eventually transform them into green spaces.
However, these transformations require significant investments on the part of cities and government agencies due to the high costs of demolition. The city of Cleveland alone has identified roughly 10,000 structures that will require demolition. And Cuyahoga County as a whole estimates that it will need $250 million to cover demolition expenses over the next decade. Thriving Communities Institute and its director, Jim Rokakis, a nationally recognized expert on the foreclosure crisis, has secured $232 million in funding for targeted demolition projects in cities across Ohio.
Between conserving open lands and rebuilding urban environments, Western Reserve Land Conservancy is helping to restore the natural beauty of what was once the frontier of the nation. It envisions a future where succeeding generations of Ohioans will live in thriving communities blessed with rich soils, unspoiled natural areas, clean water and healthy neighborhoods. If the Land Conservancy’s untempered dedication is any indication, then that future is assured for all.