The number of land trusts in California increased by 50% in the last five years, reflecting dramatic growth in private conservation efforts across the country.
In a report released Thursday, the Land Trust Alliance found that nationally, land protected by private, nonprofit trusts and conservation groups grew by 54%, or 13 million acres, between 2000 and 2005.
"We think the amount of acreage will continue to increase every year," said James Wyerman, the alliance's communications director. "Every year we've done this, we see not just some growth, but exponential growth."
Driving the trend, he and others said, is the passage of conservation bond funds, federal tax incentives and the desire to preserve open space as development pushes into new areas.
"Land trusts are protecting land close to home," said alliance President Rand Wentworth. "People are hungry for a place to walk or bike or hike."
In California, the number of trusts jumped from 132 to 198 over the five-year period ending in 2005.
Land protected by local and regional trusts rose by 39%, to 1.7 million acres.
When acreage conserved by big national groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, is added, about 3.3% of the state is protected by trusts, according to the alliance.
During the period reviewed by the report, California voters approved $10 billion worth of conservation bond measures, providing money that trusts could tap into.
"All of a sudden you had some funding," said Nita Vail, executive director of the California Rangeland Trust. "You have landowners become more interested because there's an economic viability to doing this."
Formed in 1998, Vail's organization has placed 176,000 acres of range land in Central and Northern California under conservation easements and has a waiting list of 50 ranchers.
"It's phenomenal -- the applications we continue to receive," Vail said. "There's not enough funding to fund all of them.... We had no idea when we first started how important this would be."
Trusts typically operate in three ways: They directly acquire land and manage it; they purchase conservation easements that leave the land in private hands but bar future development; and they buy land and then sell it to a government agency to manage.
In the alliance survey, by far the largest increase was in acreage placed under easements, a trend expected to continue.
Buying easements is much cheaper than purchasing property outright -- typically 30% to 40% of the land value, Vail said. And the approach raises fewer hackles in rural areas, where conservationists are often viewed as the enemy.
"This is no longer 'environmentalists,' " Wentworth said. "This is mainstream American values. Farmers and ranchers in conservative areas want to keep their land in agricultural use and free from development. Much of what is driving this is large conservation easements."