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WV Land Trust secures more funding for conservation efforts

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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal

The West Virginia Land Trust has a new executive director and more funding for its conservation efforts.

The only statewide 501(c)(3) land trust recently hired Parkersburg native Brent Bailey as its executive director.

Bailey said he will lead the land trust in protecting even more of West Virginia's special places that have cultural, agricultural, historical, ecological or biological importance with a tool used widely in other parts of the country: conservation easements.

Funding to place those easements on properties has been made possible by $12 million from lawsuit settlements.

"Protecting watersheds is a great opportunity here," Bailey said. "The settlement funds derived from damage that occurred in bodies of water. We can look at headwater streams starting at the top of watershed to protect habitats for fishing. We have the means now to bring some protection to those key places.

"I think overall the biggest opportunity is it gives a chance to accelerate the pace of conservation in West Virginia, statewide but especially in the central coal mining region."

Putting money to work

Bailey outlined how the Land Trust will be able to do more with the funding from coal company settlements.

The money is available to purchase environmentally sensitive parcels of land, but it's not the Land Trust's goal or purpose to own or hold land.

"We can purchase land for protection, and it can later be purchased from us by a state or federal government body," Bailey said, explaining that the nonprofit organization can move faster to acquire land than a government entity that would have to wait for appropriations.

"The Land Trust can also put a conservation easement on those lands that restrict the ways they can be developed and then sell them," he said. "I think the conservation easements are a tool for conservation that are perhaps not broadly understood in West Virginia but widely used throughout the rest of the United States."

The Land Trust can assist homeowners who want to restrict development of their land in perpetuity with adding an easement to the property's deed.

"Everything is voluntary," Bailey stressed. "The landowners are in charge. They drive this. We bring a set of legal tools to a transaction that allows their wishes to be protected."

Breaking new ground

That's where a partnership between the Land Trust and a new law clinic at West Virginia University becomes important.

"The Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic at WVU is going to be really important to our work," Bailey said. "They have a staff of attorneys to help with the somewhat extensive legal work in the easement process. In addition, the law clinic can represent the landowner, and we can have other attorneys representing us. And it's going to give aspiring attorneys – students – a chance to work on conservation issues where before they might not have had much exposure to it."

The Land Trust could grow in scope in other ways.

"We have worked quietly as a small organization for many years with a working board preserving properties," Bailey said. "One other thing we played a leadership role in is the development of the Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund. It's a fee levied at the county level when property changes hands. It goes into a fund, and the state of West Virginia has about half of this OHCF funding for acquisitions of properties. The other half is distributed to conservation organizations like the Land Trust to protect land."

The settlement money can be used as matching funds.

"We're going to look at what are other funding mechanisms, like the property transfer fee, that might generate income and look for donations of property and donations of funds from individuals and corporations to support our work."

The Land Trust works in partnership with watershed associations, other land trusts in the state, government agencies and municipalities and coordinates efforts to identify and protect West Virginia's special places.

"This funding allows us to work in partnership with so many other entities and provide services that we haven't before." Bailey said. "We are excited about what this could mean to setting aside valuable land in West Virginia. It's a change to ramp up conservation in the state."

Bailey's foundation

Bailey previously worked as the Appalachian director for the Mountain Institute, which does conservation and community development in mountain ranges around the world.

He has worked in Appalachia for the past eight years. For 20 years before that, he did international conservation work.

"One area of conservation I thought I wanted to be working in was land protection," Bailey said. "West Virginia has so little land already protected compared to other states. We do have good sized chunks of federal land. Where you fish or hike could easily be turned under tomorrow without the infrastructure or resources to really protect lands.

"That's the piece that's been missing from our conservation picture here in West Virginia," he said. "And I wanted to be connected to it."