Who owns and manages land, and how do land trusts fit in?
Oregonians. We love these lands and care for the waters that flow through them. Many who are born here never leave because of the bounty and beauty. Many who come do so for the same reason. But what’s the story around who owns and manages our lands, and what’s the role of land trusts?
A culture of conservation
What many people call Oregon wilderness, tribes call home. The region’s natural beauty and abundance have, of course, captured hearts and livelihoods not only for recent generations but from time immemorial. Native tribes have lived and cared for the diverse landscapes for thousands of years—with a connection to and respect for the land at the core of their community’s way of life. Their cultural stories are inseparable from the geography and bounty of their ancestral lands. Land carries connection. Respect. Species. Stories.
Before Oregon was named a state in 1859, the federal government had laid claim over much of the region, taking land from native tribes and platting it out for new homesteads or placing it in federal ownership for management. As a result, 53% of Oregon is currently federally owned, while tribal ownership stands at just over 1% of their historic domain. Unfortunately, land ownership and use have excluded entire communities and indigenous peoples have experienced a tremendous loss of heritage lands—and a way of life. In Oregon, there are currently nine federally-recognized Native American Tribes, which have over 24,000 members, and more than 50 Native American Tribes once lived in Oregon.
At COLT we are not experts in Native American culture or history and we cannot rectify the past. We are, however, working to commit ourselves to an inclusive future that honors our state’s tribal history and culture, and the conservation ethic set forth by our indigenous communities.
Who owns and manages land?
Private lands are where land trusts typically work.
Land across the nation is constructed of boundaries of ownership and land use, defined by both history and diverse ecosystems. The federal government’s ownership is often referred to as “public” lands, and state, local and tribal governments also own and manage land across the nation, some of which is open to the public. Land owned by a person or business is referred to as “private” land—be that a row house in the city or expansive ranch lands.
What’s public land?
Public lands, like their name implies, are owned by the all of us. Think about places that are open to the public (hello Crater Lake). The lands are managed by “agencies” of our government. Most people use the term “public lands” when thinking about federal management. Public lands can also include state and local parks and places.
How are federal lands managed?
Mainly by four federal agencies.
Additionally—independently and cooperatively—these federal agencies and others manage wilderness areas, marine monuments, national monuments, battlefields, recreation areas, trails, seashores, lakeshores and wild and scenic rivers. Look here for more.
What is private land?
Land owned by an individual or business is commonly called “private” land. This could be anything from your house and yard to a vineyard or stand of timber.
Oregon’s private lands are in a mosaic of uses, 92% of which are designated for farm or forest use. Oregon’s transformational land use planning system, passed and championed in 1973 by Republican Governor Tom McCall, has largely kept urban sprawl contained within urban areas. When driving, cycling, or passing through Oregon’s rural landscapes, we have this planning system to thank.
Identifying with and caring for Oregon’s natural qualities is common among the vast majority of people who live here. The Oregon Values and Beliefs survey found that 78% of Oregonians used environmentally positive words and phrases when asked what they value about Oregon. The recreational opportunities on our public lands engage hundreds of thousands of people each year, contributing over $16 billion to our region’s economy. Generations of families venture to fish, camp, hike, learn and explore landscapes and rivers in Oregon.
The role of land trusts in Oregon
Land trusts work in the “private” land arena. Governments have systems and regulations for using and protecting our lands. But what if an individual wants to make sure a part of their property remains a natural place and is not an asphalt parking lot in the future? Land trusts fill a gap in the conservation space—empowering everyday people to protect land for conservation, for all time, creating and keeping open space for wildlife, clean water, recreation, working farms and more.
We don’t love the category “private”—as land trust work is about benefits for everyone and is driven by relationships and partnerships. But, technically, private lands are where we work. Land trusts are nonprofits that work with people and partners who want to conserve land. Conserving private lands is the common currency of the more than 25 land trusts in the state. It’s work that complements public, state, local and tribal land stewardship.
But what if an individual wants to make sure a part of their property remains a natural place and is not an asphalt parking lot in the future?
Land trust’s collective impact
Land trusts in Oregon have conserved over 420,000 acres—some of which are open to the public. These lands protect critical habitat, conserve productive farms and forests and expand recreational opportunities. Land trusts complement Oregon’s rich mosaic of public lands, land use regulations, and growing urban areas by adding another way to provide public values. Land trusts are a key piece in the ongoing puzzle of how we wish to see our state grow and thrive while sustaining the literal ground that gives us life. Each land trust is charted, organized, and managed as a nonprofit to ensure the lands they conserve stay protected forever for the benefit of the public.