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Collaborative aims to make life easier for southern Maine land trusts

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Collaborative aims to make life easier for southern Maine land trusts

YARMOUTH — Alan Stearns believes "land conservation is growing up."

Stearns, the executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust, spoke as he followed a trail May 18 at the Spear Farms Estuary Preserve.

Maine's many land trusts, and their volunteers, can't operate "in bake-sale mode for the next 50 years," Stearns said. "Bake-sale mode isn't sustainable."

The responsibilities of acquiring and maintaining land for conservation can sometimes be a stretch for land trusts based on the backs of well-meaning volunteers with limited skills, knowledge, or time. Most, including those with the luxury of some paid staff, like the Royal River trust, are too small to do everything, and need to outsource some of their work, Stearns said.

Increasingly, conservation groups with small, but specific geographic focuses are banding together to share the workload and expertise. For eight land trusts in Cumberland and York counties, that's where the Portland-based Southern Maine Conservation Collaborative comes in.

The collaborative grew out of the dissolution last year of the Portland North Land Trust Collaborative, which split when the Falmouth Land Trust decided that it was ready to stand on its own after a five-year partnership with the Oceanside Conservation Trust of Casco Bay and the Chebeague and Cumberland Land Trust.

Each of the three rely on volunteer efforts to operate, and the Oceanside and Chebeague and Cumberland trusts felt they would continue to benefit from cooperative work, said Jessica Burton, the collaborative director, who also worked for Portland North.

At the same time, other local land trusts were having informal discussions about how to approach common issues, and the time seemed right to join forces.

A working group of representatives from 11 land trusts was formed and after a year of discussion, the collaborative came to life in January. Eight land trusts signed on to become governing members, each paying a $1,000 annual membership that grants them representation on the organization's board.

The new collaborative, Burton said, is "not just the (Portland North Land Trust Collaborative) gotten bigger.”

Nor does it represent a merger of the individual land trusts. “We’re not trying to take over," she said.

Rather, the two-employee collaborative is a service center, providing land trusts support in various forms and increasing efficiency by centralizing knowledge that each one might need, but find lacking among its own members. On top of the annual membership fee, the collaborative charges $40 an hour for services.

For many of the land trusts, a key service that the collaborative can provide is guidance through the lengthy accreditation process.

"There's no reason for every land trust to be expert in that process," Stearns said, but Burton and the collaborative have already gone through it before.

Land trusts might join the collaborative for help monitoring conservation easements, Stearns said, where the regulations might be more complex than a weekend volunteer would first realize.

Since forming in January, the collaborative has also worked with members on developing member databases, preparing a manual for one trust's board members, and writing grants. At the end of May, it will organize a training on trail maintenance led by Portland Trails, a collaborative member.

"Grant writing is time consuming. It's involved; you have to know what you're doing," said Fred Frodyma, vice president of the Three Rivers Land Trust in York County. "The collaborative has the expertise" to find appropriate funding sources for their organization, he said.

“This sort of allows everybody to pool skills and get what they want," said Brenda Buchanan, a former board member of the Oceanside trust, who was instrumental in forming the collaborative.

The collaborative is itself supported this year by grants and donations, but hopes to be self-sufficient, based on services provided, by its fifth year.

So far, the collaborative's pilot year has had mixed success, Burton said.

They had anticipated six member organizations in the first year and landed eight, but are slightly behind on a goal to contract 400 service hours, she said.

Only three of the eight members have hired them for services beyond membership. Frodyma and Stearns both said that their organizations are still trying to decide how to best utilize their membership.

The collaborative will revisit its model at the end of the year, Burton said, and make changes if necessary.

“The truth is we really do have to show some success this year," she said, "and that’s a big piece of what’s really going to bring others on.”

The collaborative's members know that their work will continue with or without partnerships or a network of peers.

Maine's open land is one of its greatest attractions, for tourists and new residents alike, and preserving that is vital to the health of the state, Stearns said. "Targeted conservation is one piece of keeping Maine the way we remember it," he said.

He called the conservation collaborative "a necessary piece of the puzzle."

"Our experience is that change makes for stronger organizations that will survive."

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.