Land Trusts in Humboldt County: Alternative Ways to Protect and Conserve Resources


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by donna luckey

How can we protect land in Humboldt County, this amazing place we call home? Different models exist for us to consider, and a land trust* may be a good solution.

For centuries, indigenous peoples lived in cooperation with each other and with the land: all the members of the eco-community made up the whole place we call home. While the conceptual structure of holding ‘private property’ imposed through colonialism remains today, we have come to recognize the wisdom of a more holistic perspective of a shared, interconnected ‘commons.’ How do land trusts provide  more balanced relationships to the eco-community within the capitalist model of private property rights? 


Where did the idea of a land trust come from? 

In 1929, Ralph Borsodi introduced the idea of ‘trustertyrather than property, which inspired alternative community landholding models (e.g., the School of Living, from the 1930s). Holding land in trust means protecting particular parts of the ‘bundle of rights’ that make up our concept of private property. Land trusts protect resources by acquiring some of these rights and maintaining them through restoration and stewardship for future generations. 


How does a land trust work?

Land trusts protect land by acquiring conservation easements or through the outright purchase of the land. The outright purchase of land in Humboldt County can be prohibitively expensive.  A quick review of open land for sale in the county yields prices ranging from $1,800 to $27,000 per acre. Very few land trusts have the resources to purchase land at these prices without outside assistance, and some land trusts find the obligations of ownership beyond their purview.  

Houda Point overlook, Trinidad Coastal Land Trust property. Photo by donna luckey

More frequently, land trusts use conservation easements as a land protection measure.  These easements are purchased or donated, in the form of an agreement between landowners and land trusts. A conservation easement conveys selected property rights from the owner to the trust, conserving the land with these protected rights held ‘in perpetuity’.  The easement outlines acceptable uses, usually protecting the land from development; sometimes public access is allowed. However, since protected land often has significant ecological values such as fragile riparian habitats or dunes, it may not be open to the public. The landowner may also receive tax benefits from sale or donation to a land trust. (For more on possible tax benefits, contact a land trust directly.) These basic land protection tools are also used by government agencies, like the City of Arcata in protecting the Community Forest, as well as other conservation groups, such as Save the Redwoods or the Trust for Public Lands


History of land trusts in Humboldt County

While working as the North Coast Field Representative for the State Coastal Conservancy (SCC) in 1979, I met with Trinidad community members to discuss their desire to protect critical land there. These conversations and other projects along the coast led to the SCC’s Land Trust Program; grant funding from the SCC followed, helping to create the Trinidad Coastal Land Trust. The TCLT currently has 26 coastal properties and easements, providing protection and public access to an extensive stretch of our coast. This ongoing stewardship is part of conservation activities ensured by land trusts at regional and state levels as well.

The Sanctuary Forest in southern Humboldt is another early group. Formed in the 1980s, this trust protects land and waters of the Mattole River watershed. They are an award-winning trust, working with the Mattole Restoration Council and providing education programs as well as conservation and restoration measures in that area.

Active members of the Sanctuary Forest pioneered conversations that led to the founding of the Northcoast Regional Land Trust in 2000. Working in the early 2000s with The Nature Conservancy, the NCRLT developed a regional plan to protect land in a 3-county area (including Del Norte and Trinity Counties). The NCRLT currently conserves more than 50,000 acres.

Other local land trusts in Humboldt County include the Friends of the Dunes, the Jacoby Creek Land Trust, and the McKinleyville Land Trust. As their names suggest, each of these land trusts has a local focus, whether the Samoa Dunes, the bluffs of the Mad River, or the watershed of Jacoby Creek. 

Most recently, newly protected lands in Humboldt County include the Marshall Ranch in southern Humboldt and the Samoa Dunes and Wetlands. In 2019, the California Rangeland Trust, a state organization, protected the 2,942-acre Marshall Ranch. Working ranches and agricultural land often include critical habitat, such as the riparian corridor of the South Fork of the Eel River found there. Just this year, a cooperative coalition effort acquired the Samoa ecosystems, and Friends of the Dunes will be the interim owner and manager of this 357-acre area (NCJ). 


Collaborative efforts

As the previous example indicates, land trusts can collaborate and coordinate in many ways. Organizations like the Northern Regional Council of California Land Trusts, the California Council of Land Trusts, and the Land Trust Alliance provide organizational support.  State organizations like the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the SCC continue to partner with local land trusts today, funding public access, planning projects, and land acquisition.  For example, the Jacoby Creek Land Trust has a grant from the SCC to develop a flood protection plan for the lower Jacoby Creek watershed.


Ways to participate

There are numerous ways for you to connect with a land trust as part of Humboldt County’s conservation community. Join an interpretive hike led by one of the trusts to explore local ecosystems. Volunteer to clean up beaches and remove invasive species. Support land trust fundraising activities.  During the pandemic, online auctions and educational opportunities offer ways to participate in local land trust activities. Yet another way to support land trusts is through your estate planning.

Land trusts work within the current economic model of private property while providing stewardship of common resources into the future. Let’s work together to find more balanced relationships with all members of our eco-community! 


*A similar organizational structure, the ‘community land trust’, focuses on providing housing choices and opportunities, not land protection. An example is Berkeley’s Northern California Land Trust.

donna luckey, board member of Jacoby Creek Land Trust; retired prof. of architecture and environmental planning, University of Kansas.