Ensuring The Songbird Returns

By Lisa Cohn

Reprinted with permission from Open Spaces Magazine

In 1989, Glenn Lamb was worried about the fate of the Cedar waxwing, a grey-brown songbird that delighted him for three days each fall by feasting on crabapple trees in his Southeast Portland neighborhood.

As an urban planner for Clark County, the fastest-growing region in Washington state, Lamb had seen too many trees destroyed by developers rushing to erect discount malls, fast-food restaurants and subdivisions. He feared that soon, the fruit trees that served as the waxwings' way stations on their journey to Southeast Portland would be gone. If that happened, no longer could Lamb witness the miracle of the Cedar waxwing's annual return.

"They're only here for those three days, then they're gone, and you don't see them again until the next year," says Lamb, a lanky, 39-year-old hiking enthusiast with a boyish smile. "Each time I see them, it feels like the fourth of July, or Christmas."

But that wasn't the only reason Lamb created a land trust dedicated to snatching privately owned lands from development and protecting the flood plains and old-growth spruce wetlands and oak shrub stands forever.

The mission was in Lamb's blood.

The grandson of one of the founders of the conservationist Green Mountain Club in Vermont, Lamb was raised on stories of how his maternal grandfather helped build part of the Appalachian Trail, of how a lodge on that trail bears his grandfather's name. He loved the tales about his Aunt Mary, who spent a week hiking in the Vermont woods each year and complained that she lost sleep listening to porcupines gnawing on picnic tables.

When Lamb was a young boy, his paternal grandfather strapped a woven basket to Lamb's back to cradle water and food while the pair hiked and skied. With his extended family, a young Lamb helped build trails, wielding a hatchet to carve out rectangular markers in the bark of trees.

So Lamb grew to love the forests of New England, and felt his own happiness was tied to the fate of the stands of birch and other trees he had shared with his family.

Even before he became a planning student at the University of Oregon, he felt responsible for the forests and fields and mountains of Massachusetts, Oregon and all the places in between; he felt it was his job to protect them.

Given his mission, Lamb couldn't bear it when his friends and associates in Clark County, Wash. began complaining about losing the marshes and wetlands where they had huddled as young boys, searching for frogs. Gone were the empty lots where rabbits and deer grazed. Gone was the black bear that delighted young boys when they caught sight of it lumbering near property now known as Vancouver Mall.

"There's something about standing under a great old oak and knowing that tree has been growing and living and seeing seasons change for over 100 years. It's so important to know these places are there," he says.

So Lamb joined hands with a few farmers and a realtor. Together, working nights and weekends, they labored over a mission statement, created a board of directors for the Clark County Land Trust and began their quest: Who would donate or help buy private property to conserve the region's scenic and biological wonders?

Lamb asked his question at Rotary Club meetings and at neighborhood gatherings. He queried people already striving to protect local rivers, ponds and lakes. He issued his request quietly, gently, with the skill and compassion of a beloved country doctor.

"He has a gentle manner, which is a great skill, like a bedside manner in doctors," says Tim Welch, an educational software developer in Woodland, Wash. who preserved 12 acres on the Kalama River in Cowlitz County through the trust. "He can talk to people who have worked hard all their lives to acquire, people who tend to put their arms around things and say 'It's mine.' Glenn sort of loosens their grip on it. He says, 'I'm not even going to take it away. But I am suggesting that what you love could be preserved.'"

One by one, the donors and dreamers came forward. They were people who lived and worked in places as far away as Astoria, Ore. and Klickitat, Wash. Each had a story about a stand of spruce or a second-growth forest or a farm that had been in the family for generations. And each had a dream about that land. They included a woman who had capriciously purchased a few acres to protect some Douglas fir trees, but couldn't afford the mortgage payments; people like the residents of a Washington state town who feared they were about to lose the only undeveloped piece of property with views of the Columbia River. And they were couples like Alan and Bernice Johnson, who wanted to convert their 43-acre cattle farm into a refuge for the deer, raccoons, coyote, skunks and squirrels whose homes had been displaced by shopping malls and subdivisions near Camus, Wash.

And then there was Wayne Rothrock, who was dying of AIDS and wanted someone to plant and care for a grove of trees in his memory.

Like Welch, these people felt the land trust offered them an opportunity to secure a little piece of eternity. They could accomplish that goal through tools such as conservation easements, under which they give up development rights, but continue to own their property. With easements, landowners specifically state which kinds of development can occur on their property. Land trusts have the legal authority to enforce the owners' wishes--to establish a green space, or preserve a viewpoint--into perpetuity.

"Nothing lasts long is this too-fragile world," says Welch. "The company that I built and the software I engineered and the work I do now for the community are fleeting. But my property is something that I know will still be here and be glorious for two and three generations. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will stand there and say, 'This is where my great-grandpa was happy.'"

Before Lamb began helping people secure slices of eternity, he toiled long hours as a planner for Clark County, in the planning and parks departments.

However, by the early 1990s, he realized that no matter how many development applications he reviewed, or how many foresters he visited, or how many parks he helped establish, he couldn't achieve his mission if he continued to work as a regulator. Not only were his efforts fleeting; they were often ineffective.

At that time, the number of northern spotted owls--which dwell in the Northwest's old-growth forests--were dwindling due to the effects of clearcutting, especially on National Forest lands. But the regulations intended to rescue the owls only served to reap more destruction. Private foresters started defying their own intuition--and their 50-year tree-harvest plans--because they feared they'd be the targets of harvest restrictions.

These foresters included Dan Dupuis of Amboy, Wash., who initially cut his timber in a way that allowed him to both preserve his old-growth Douglas firs and support his family, says Lamb. Dupuis managed one stand of tree to pay for his children's college education; another he dedicated to his retirement fund.

"He had one old-growth tree that he loved. He told me, 'I will never cut this tree,'" recalls Lamb.

But after the federal government in the late 1980s protected the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act, landowners like Dupuis were scared. They worried that if they owned one tree that served as a habitat to one northern spotted owl, the federal government would prohibit them from harvesting trees all over their property. Fear led to unwarranted destruction.

"There were a flood of applications to clearcut trees. A lot of those landowners would have managed their land in a more environmentally responsible sort of way if they weren't so scared of regulation," Lamb says.

As the foresters felled their trees, Lamb felt paralyzed. He would stroll along a stand of old-growth firs one day and return two months later to discover the earth laid barren by clearcuts.

"I realized at a deep level the regulations were not accomplishing what they were intended to accomplish," he says. "I wanted to take an action so people like that forester Dan Dupuis could hold onto his tree. That's what moved me to start the land trust."

Longtime Vancouver, Wash. resident Terry Cornelius was frustrated, too. Every day, it seemed, one of the filbert orchards, swimming holes or forest paths where he had played as a child fell prey to developers. And when he tried to take action, his efforts were foiled by fast-moving builders. One day he and his brother decided to create a plan for preserving a favorite 100-year-old apple tree that graced a Vancouver corner. But three days after their initial conversation, the brothers returned to the corner to discover that builders had bulldozed the tree to make way for a retirement home.

"It showed how quickly the county was changing. If you didn't do something right away, you'd be too late," he says.

So in the spring of 1989, Lamb, Cornelius and eight to 10 other volunteers gathered in a community meeting room at the Murdock Charitable Trust to form the Clark County Land Trust, the Columbia Land Trust's predecessor. They vowed to seek out landowners eager to help construct a patchwork quilt of five-acre farms and 10-acre ranches, a quilt of mini-preserves that encouraged redtail hawks to nest in spruce trees, invited humans to stroll along ancient Native American trails and allowed bears to feed on insects hiding in the bark of downed timber.

Finally, Lamb had found a way to pursue his mission: Working hand-in-hand with private landowners, he would help preserve the region's basalt cliffs, old-growth firs and tidal flats. He would create permanent homes for ducks and geese, owls and coyotes. He simply had to find enough hours in the day to squeeze in his paid work.

"He had his day job, and he had his mission at night," says Patty Freeman, Glenn's wife. "It's been a huge balancing act for Glenn to try to do something he feels passionately about and also have a life."

As soon as the Land Trust was formed, Lamb's efforts began to pay off. The phone calls poured in. Alan and Bernice Johnson wanted to preserve their former cattle farm in a condition that catered to wildlife. The Johnsons hoped to build ponds to attract ducks and geese and restore a creek to its pre-cattle-farming condition. They planned to install feeders for the birds and squirrels, hand out crack corn to the deer and build feeding platforms for pigeons.

Like the Johnsons, Michael Jennings hated to see the effects of growth. An ecologist who owns a 350-acre former farm on the Little Klickitat River near the Eastern Cascade foothills, he worried that his property would be "chopped up" into housing lots if he ever lost control of it. Gone would be the Oregon oak, Ponderosa pine, western grey squirrels and woodpeckers that he treasured. Working with the Columbia Land Trust, he established a conservation easement that prohibits development and establishes specific plans for caring for the forests and rangelands. His easement includes detailed provisions: a prohibition on dogs running free, for example.

"We wanted by design to configure our property in a way that we would feel okay about and which would be enforced as long as we have a system of law," he says.

"I don't oppose development to accommodate increasing population," says Jennings. "I am against the unthinking, undesigned, hodgepodge approach that future generations will pay for. It means we lose plant and animal resources that we depend on for everything. Whatever good things come out of development will be by design, and land trusts are one of the few ways of doing that."

People like Jennings and the Johnsons had few design tools before Lamb helped form the Land Trust in 1989.

While land trusts have been popular on the East Coast for many years, few existed in the West before 1990, in part because up to 80 percent of the property in some states was already owned by the federal government, says Elizabeth Bell, director of the Northwest program of the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance. However, in response to development pressure, landowners in the last decade have embraced the idea of controlling the fate of their property. In the Northwest, the number of acres preserved each year by the trusts grows by about 17 to 20 percent, according to the Alliance.

The acres preserved include the Columbia Land Trust's contribution: 1,000 acres conserved on 19 sites. The trust is working to conserve another 3,500 acres at another 30 sites, and expects 1,000 more acres to come under the Trust's protection by 2001. Recently Lamb and his associates at the Trust received $1 million from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore wetlands on the lower Columbia River.

Such successes in 1998 allowed Lamb to quit his job as a planner and come on board as executive director of an expanded Columbia Land Trust, which now preserves land all along the Columbia River, from points east of the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Although Lamb was forced to take a pay cut, he now spends his days happily fielding requests from people who can't bear to witness the loss of another landmark oak, wetland or eagle's nest.

No longer does he pour over development applications, fret over ineffective rules and worry that he's wasting taxpayers' time and money. Now he helps people design wish lists for the future of their property, then quickly and efficiently implements them.

"The Columbia Land Trust is the trust we hold up as an example of how to do things right," says Dale Bonar, associate director of the Land Trust Alliance. "Glenn is clearly dedicated to doing what he loves, and it shows in everything he does."

Ironically, now that he's following his dream, Lamb struggles daily with the feelings that led him to the land conservation field to begin with: He needs to be outside, to stand in a forest and fill up his senses with the slap of rain-soaked wind or the smell of dry leaves or the glory of spring colors, he says. The oaks and firs and spruce calm him, nurture him. He tries to find time to walk outside every morning and practices tai chi next to an oak tree every day. But most days, he doesn't have time for more than that.

When a citizen calls with hopes of creating a waterfalls park, expanding a trail or plucking a critical viewpoint from the hands of developers, Lamb can't say no. He hears the voices of his ancestors.

Aunt Mary whispers about how much she loved her daily one-mile walks along a Wyoming river. His grandparents remind Lamb how special he felt as he helped blaze hiking trails in Northfield, Mass. Uncle Joe, a dude rancher in Wyoming, laughs as a jay lands on his shoulder and squawks.

"I feel I have a sacred responsibility to care for the land," Lamb says. "It isn't onerous; it's a privilege."

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