Saturday, December 20, 2008 7:00 AM
Ask Cindy Hildebrand how many acres of land she is preserving in Story County, and she replies: "I tend not to think of number of acres; I tend to think of it in terms of the amount of honeysuckle I need to pull."
Hildebrand and her husband, Roger Maddux, are land philanthropists of the purest sort.
Over the last several years, they have purchased land with the sole intent of saving its remaining stands of prairie vegetation, native woodlands and oak savannas, the transition zone from prairie to timber most often populated with native bur oaks.
Hildebrand and Maddux are not alone in their attention to what remains of native Iowa landscape.
They are among a growing number of landowners, some who live on their properties and others who are absentee owners, with a special fondness for the state or its ancestral memories who are preserving land and, in many cases, turning it over to nonprofit organizations to own or manage.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation stands at the center of much of that land philanthropy, advising landowners, accepting property and monitoring easements, such as the one on the Hildebrand and Maddux farm.
"We're kind of the first call for help," said Anita O'Gara, the foundation's vice president and director of development. "We do for land protection what the United Way does for human services."
And as of this week, they are not alone. The Greater Des Moines Community Foundation announced last week that, for the first time, a farm has been added to the holdings of one of its affiliate organizations.
The Russell Helms family has entered into an agreement in which most of their century farm can be sold, but not until at least 20 years have passed, with the proceeds going to the Madrid Community Endowment Fund and the Madrid Historical Society.
The gift comes with restrictions. The farm cannot be scraped away for commercial development or the installation of large livestock confinement operations.
In return, the Helms family, which had previously established a family fund with the Madrid Community Endowment Fund, receives a tax benefit for the present value of their farm.
It is difficult to calculate the exact value of the donation to the endowment fund. However, in the last year, the average price of Iowa farmland has increased 14 percent to nearly $4,500 an acre, according to a recent study by Iowa State University.
Though the Helms gift marks the first time that farmland has been turned over to a community foundation, it falls into a larger landscape that has been shaped by organizations such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, a handful of other land trusts in the state and conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has been involved in the protection of 108,000 acres since its founding in 1979.
From 2001 to 2007, it has seen the number of conservation easements it monitors grow to 3,519 acres from 836.
Its membership has grown to more than 7,000 from 4,662 during that time, and the value of its land projects has grown to $11.5 million from nearly $1.3 million. Last year, the foundation received $23 million in contributions of land and cash.
The organization also packs some punch in other areas of land philanthropy. It has been a key mover in the development of recreation trails.
Former Ankeny Mayor Merle Johnson participated in raising funds needed to trigger a Vision Iowa grant for completion of a 25-mile Ankeny-to-Woodward recreation trail.
He was given three weeks to raise $120,000 of the $550,000 needed to secure the $1.75 million grant.
"When it came down to crunch time, people ponied right up," Johnson said. He attributed the success to support from communities along the trail, the fact that it was an "awesome" project and respect for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
There are other reasons for the success of the foundation and other land trusts.
For one, organizations that rate nonprofit organizations, such as the Charity Navigator, tend to give conservation groups high ratings for efficient fund raising and potential for future growth.
The Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based policy and education group, received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator.
Mark Ackelson, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, helped found the alliance, which counts 1,200 of the nation's 1,700 land trusts as members.
"Land trusts and conservation organizations are sophisticated organizations with responsible boards that represent a strong cross section of business, conservation and farm interests," he said.
In addition, because the organizations frequently are charged with monitoring land conservation under easements that run in perpetuity, they have an overriding sense of stewardship.
"These are perpetual responsibilities, and you don't want to take them lightly," Ackelson said.
The Land Trust Alliance sponsors training programs to make sure its member organizations are up to the task of managing multimillion-dollar budgets and have the expertise to monitor land whose owners want to leave a conservation legacy.
Keeping it on the farm
One of those owners is Mike LaMair, a member of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation's volunteer board.
LaMair has placed his family's 170-acre farm near Runnells in a conservation easement. Under such easements, owners stipulate land-use policies for their properties for present and future generations.
Part of the farm is row-cropped and part of it is timberland. LaMair's easement allows it to function as a farm operation, but it cannot be used for commercial development.
"We just decided that there are certain places that we didn't want to see developed," he said. "It's like people giving up parkland. Ours can be sold, but at this point, we put an easement on our own land to make sure there wasn't a strip mall."
LaMair has placed another 875-acre farm near Branson, Mo., under a conservation easement. The property was purchased by his parents in the 1940s, and as with the Polk County property, LaMair did not want it to be sold for development.
Like many other people who enter into conservation easements, LaMair also established a fund to help enforce his wishes. That responsibility has been left to the Polk County Conservation Board, where LaMair placed the easement in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because of his involvement with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
The easements carry a federal tax benefit that is set to expire in 2010, and beginning this year, they qualify for an Iowa income tax credit.
Ackelson said passage of the Iowa tax credit, which provides a direct deduction from a state income tax bill as opposed to an itemized deduction from gross income, has helped spur interest in land philanthropy.
In addition, the conservation community has been called to action to keep the federal deduction from expiring at the end of next year.
Other land philanthropists have an attraction to their property that might go beyond any ancestral roots in the land.
Preservation on the mind
Hildebrand and Maddux want to protect natural places.
They are what the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation's O'Gara calls conservation buyers.
"We bought some pieces of land particularly to protect them," Hildebrand said. "We put conservation easements on two parcels and hope to put easements on others as well."
The first parcel was purchased in 1988, and others, adding up to a little more than 230 acres, have been purchased since then in Story and Jasper counties.
Hildebrand and Maddux look for land that shows at least vestiges of Iowa's prairie past.
They credit previous landowners for protecting some areas, such as a stretch of ground that still sprouts native wildflowers or a stand of timber.
"We wanted to protect part of what's left of natural Iowa," Hildebrand said. "We think Iowa has beautiful and natural areas, but there aren't that many left," Hildebrand said.
The conservation easements not only guarantee that the property will remain protected, but also help the couple afford to maintain the land via the tax incentives.
"However, there are easier ways to make money," Hildebrand said.
There is no better way to protect the land, though.
"We consider this our legacy," she said. "We want to leave something after we're gone that will benefit other people. I would think that anyone who admires an orchid or a scarlet tanager would understand that."