Erin Heskett elevates the urgency of land protection efforts in a leading role at the Land Trust Alliance
Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Erin Heskett, AG96, reveled in the outdoors, especially exploring the woods and fishing in the streams that surrounded his home in rural, north-central Ohio. But he also saw those natural landscapes increasingly threatened, diminished and destroyed by development.
When he was a student at Bowling Green State University, that trend focused his career plans. “I wanted to do something,” he says, “to protect the natural spaces that shaped me growing up.”
Today, as vice president of conservation initiatives at the Land Trust Alliance, he advocates for accelerating the pace and elevating the impact of land conservation across the United States. He and his team provide resources, technical assistance and training, and financial support to the Alliance’s nearly 1,000 land trust members. Those community-based nonprofits have collectively conserved, to date, more than 61 million acres encompassing farmland, open lands and forests, as well as rivers, streams, lakes and ponds.
In light of global climate change, the Alliance has challenged its members to protect an additional 60 million acres by the end of 2030. According to a recent report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, failure to reduce carbon emissions significantly by that date will lead to catastrophic effects, including more frequent and more severe heat waves, storms, and coastal flooding.
Land trusts have a vital role to play in mitigating those hazards, says Heskett, by protecting, stewarding, and restoring natural landscapes that hold and absorb carbon, and buffer communities from extreme weather events and natural disasters. They also help safeguard the planet’s future when they protect forests, one of the Earth’s massive carbon sinks.
“Our goal has always been to elevate the importance of private land conservation as a solution to many of our social, economic, and environmental problems,” says Heskett. “We are also now investing in our land trust partners in a focused way around the vital role they can play in preparing communities for a sustainable future.”
On the Path to Be a ‘Practical Visionary
Heskett served as a Peace Corps volunteer at Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal before earning his master’s at Tufts in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy (now Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning). At Tufts, he found a “fantastic mentor” in the late Sheldon Krimsky, founding member of the department, and the mantra of the department has enduring resonance. “At Tufts, we called ourselves ‘practical visionaries,’” he says. “I carry that with me every day.”
Prior to joining the Alliance as its Midwest program director in 2006, he was senior program officer at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, where he led programs to mitigate threats to endangered whales. “My experiences at IFAW to protect North Atlantic right whales along the East coast were some of the most fulfilling and joyful of my career,” said Heskett. “Forging partnerships with the lobster industry and working in a very dynamic and complex space also broadened my exposure and helped prepare me for the land conservation sector.”
Why Land Trusts Matter
Land trusts facilitate conservation easements and land donations, sometimes leveraging state and federal funding or local bond initiatives, to conserve land for future generations.
Their work protects open spaces like forests and farmlands, which might otherwise be lost to growth. “We lose a football field of natural lands every 30 seconds to roads, houses, pipelines and other development,” says Heskett.
Thoughtfully conserved land can strengthen communities, improve the quality of life, and build resilience, he says. Land trusts protect ecosystems and preserve natural resources, scenic beauty, and wildlife habitats. By extension, they protect clean air, clean water, and places for recreation and respite.
Love is not too strong a word for what drives the tireless vision and optimism of those who support this work, Heskett says. “People are passionate about their local land trusts, and that’s true for me,” he says. “Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy serves nine counties and has protected more than 15,000 acres of dunes, wetlands, forests, savannas, and prairies. Its service area is comparable to the size of the state of Connecticut. I've grown to love the beautiful landscapes around me, especially the trout streams where you may find me wetting a line occasionally. That’s just one illustration of how land trusts make a difference in our lives.”
A Learning Journey
A common challenge facing land trusts that want to engage constituents around climate change issues is finding common ground on a topic that can be highly polarizing. The Alliance helps land trusts navigate those conversations with training, resources (such as a climate communications toolkit), and financial support.
Among those it has helped is the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, based in Fayetteville, where climate change is a hot-button issue. The Alliance helped the land trust develop a climate communications plan and new climate change webpage, and the then-executive director stepped up. “Her leadership was incredible. She had the courage to say climate change is a problem, this is what we're doing about it, and this is what you can do about it,” Heskett says. “Some people told her not to do this: they said, ‘You're going to lose donors.’ But once the land trust put a communication strategy into play, they actually increased their donor base.”
That is indicative of the progress that’s possible, Heskett says. “Communicating with diverse constituencies about climate change is a learning journey. We want to help land trusts navigate that journey. Climate change is a complex and difficult issue to take head on, but we believe land is the answer, and unifies people across the political and ideological spectrum.”
Building Resiliency, Now
Land trusts are also thinking ahead to build up resiliency as more extreme weather events are forecast. The Scenic Hudson Land Trust in Poughkeepsie, New York, which stewards land in the Hudson River Valley, is one example. The land trust used a computer program called SLAMM (Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model) to predict changes to tidal wetlands in the Hudson River Estuary from now through 2100 under various scenarios to look at how upstream communities will be affected by rising seas.
The land trust is working to protect parcels that will allow tidal wetlands to move and persist in the face of rising sea levels and absorb the brackish water that is expected to flow up the river corridor.
“That's been an amazing example of how land protection and land trusts can contribute to solving challenging coastal issues due to sea level rise and help buffer upstream communities,” says Heskett. And as a land trust that is also concerned about reducing carbon emissions, “they developed a solar siting guide to help multiple stakeholders identify the places on the landscape best suited for solar panels that won’t compromise protected lands or biologically important lands.”
Hopeful Strides Forward
Heskett grants that achieving the Alliance’s goal, to protect an additional 60 million acres by the end of 2030, will be “a huge feat.” He is encouraged, though, by what voters have demonstrated at the ballot box: on Election Day 2022 they approved nearly $8.7 billion in new funding for parks, climate resilience, and land conservation in 33 communities—the largest amount of new state and local funding approved for conservation since 2016.
Other positive gains are expected to come through investments from new federal programs. Through the federal America the Beautiful initiative, the Biden administration has pledged to invest billions of dollars to protect 30% of America's lands and waters by 2030. Right now, 12% of the landmass of the United States is protected.
To make the federal goal, “we need to protect an additional 440 million acres of land by 2030,” says Heskett, “and that means achieving 30% will not happen with just the support of federal and state agencies” but will also require private land conservation efforts fueled by private philanthropy and public funding. There’s ample opportunity for dramatically increasing the pace and scale of land conservation: Privately held land represents about 60% of all land in the country, and only 3% of it is protected.
So how do we get to 30%? “Land trusts, private land conservation, and conservation-minded landowners are a huge part of reaching that goal,” says Heskett. “What brings me hope is that our land trust members have already conserved 61 million acres of land. That’s more than all of the national park land combined—about 52 million acres. We have come a long way, but still have a long way to go. I am hopeful that we can make that goal a reality within the next decade.”