In 1993, when a handful of Santa Feans came together to form the Santa Fe Conservation Trust (SFCT or Trust), they knew little about conservation easements (CEs) nor a great deal about land trusts. What they did know was that, if they didn’t act quickly, one of Santa Fe’s most prominent natural landmarks, Atalaya Mountain, would be scarred by road cuts and ridge-top homes.
These founding board members, which included William deBuys, Margaret Gray, Stewart Udall, Lesley Barclay and Rosemary Romero, were led by a feisty and energetic retired banker named Dale Ball. While the group may have lacked hands-on land-trust management experience, there was no lack of commitment and enthusiasm for the mission of conserving land around Santa Fe. They got busy rallying others, spreading the word and raising money. Thanks to grants from the McCune Foundation and other early supporters, the Trust began gaining momentum in its struggle to save Atalaya.
After 18 months, their hard work paid off. Fifty acres high on the west side of the mountain were permanently saved from development. The agreement included $80,000 to help pay for the restoration of the road scar across the slope’s western face.
The effort to save Atalaya produced a greater awareness of land conservation in Santa Fe. The fledgling SFCT soon engaged other landowners, and eight additional pieces of property were placed under CEs. Remarkably, by the summer of 1995, more than 5,600 acres of land had been protected by the Trust.
Over the past two decades, there have been many proud moments for the people of the Trust, our partners and our supporters: preserving the scenic vistas around Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home; creating the 1,350-acre Ortiz Mountain Preserve; saving the Garden of the Gods, a popular landmark along the Highway 14 scenic bypass; assuring public access to Sun Mountain, a favorite hiking destination; and preserving working lands on the Koldyke Ranch, a scenic 4,900-acre cattle ranch along the Las Vegas/I-25 scenic corridor.
Today SFCT holds more than 35,000 acres of preserved land in perpetual trust—most of that generously donated as CEs. Stewardship responsibility is in the hands of four staff members and the Trust’s 16-member board of directors.
The Trust’s successes haven’t been limited to land-conservation projects. Since the early years, SFCT has been involved in efforts to ensure permanent access to the wild lands neighboring our homes and to build trails that connect people to nature.
The Dale Ball Trails in the Sangre de Cristo foothills, La Tierra Trails northwest of Santa Fe, the popular Santa Fe Rail Trail, and the new La Piedra Trail Connection off Hyde Park Road are examples of the Trust’s vision and leadership.
Of course, none of these trails were built single-handedly. They are the result of broad stakeholder cooperation and collaboration, the financial support of many organizations and individuals, and thousands of hours of volunteer time and labor. These trails now provide an amazing variety of recreational opportunities for young and old. They are a positive contribution to the long-term health and well-being of our entire community.
The challenges the Trust will likely face in the next two decades are more complex than those encountered 20 years ago during the campaign to save Atalaya Mountain. Fortunately, experience has strengthened the organization, and it’s much better equipped to meet the future.
SFCT is the first Santa Fe–based land-conservation organization to apply for accreditation by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent arm of the Land Trust Alliance of Washington, D.C. Accreditation is the mark of distinction among land trusts. Of the 1,700 land trusts in the United States, fewer than 400 have been accredited. The accreditation award, expected to be announced in the next few weeks, is the culmination of almost two years of rigorous examination and peer assessment of SFCT’s fiscal, transactional, ethical and governance policies and procedures.
The seal of accreditation should instill an extra measure of confidence in the minds of landowners, donors, public policy makers and other stakeholders. They should feel secure knowing they are working with an organization that has the proven ways and means to protect land in perpetuity.
Although the Trust’s mission remains solidly grounded in saving land, shifting economies and a changing climate are reframing SFCT’s priorities. Much land-protection work remains to be done and, using its Strategic Conservation Plan as a roadmap, the Trust is taking on as many new CE projects as capacity will permit.
SFCT is moving forward with a broad and ambitious agenda. The Trust is continually seeking innovative ways to serve landowners by providing more in-depth stewardship and land-use planning. SFCT is teaming up with other concerned groups to inform the public on the impact a warming climate has on our natural resources. Getting more kids out in the woods is a priority for the land trust’s popular trails program, and SFCT is working with the city of Santa Fe and others to make that happen.
SFCT is an example of how a strong and engaged land trust, working in partnership with like-minded groups and individuals, can help contribute to our common wealth—not just by saving lands but by advocating for all the natural and civic assets held in common for the well-being of those of us who call Santa Fe and northern New Mexico home.
Santa Fe Conservation Trust is an organization that has earned our support! Learn how you can help by visiting its web site at sfct.org
Tom McCampbell is a land-trust consultant living in Durango, Colorado.