EAST LIVERPOOL-A merger between two conservation organizations-one local, one regional-will likely result in more aggressive efforts to protect threatened scenic land in the Little Beaver Creek Watershed, the organizations said Friday.
The merger between the Little Beaver Creek Land Foundation (LBCLF) and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the state's largest land trust, is effective on Tuesday and comes after several years of cooperation between the two organizations.
"It was a nice, gentle courtship," said Scott Hill, eastern field director for the Land Conservancy.
A section of Little Beaver Creek on property protected by a conservation easement held by the Little Beaver Creek Land Foundation, which is merging with the much larger Western Reserve Land Conservancy. (Submitted Photo)
Collaboration between the two organizations began in 2009, when they agreed to co-hold a conservation easement donated by Bruce and Debbi MacLellan, of Elkrun Township, Hill said.
With the merger, the Land Conservancy will assume responsibility for monitoring:
* 184 acres in Columbiana County currently protected by conservation easements, including the MacLellan easement, held by LBCLF; and
* 126.5 acres owned outright by LBCLF in Elkrun, Butler, Fairfield, Madison and St. Clair townships.
The Land Conservancy, based in Moreland Hills, Ohio, also will assume all of LBCLF's assets and liabilities, which, as of Sept. 30, totalled $421,714.
A conservation easement is one of the preferred methods used by environmental organizations to protect scenic land that is threatened with development. Such legal agreements allow the property owner to retain ownership while ceding certain property rights to the land trust, preventing or severely restricting development.
Since its founding in 1993, LBCLF, working solely in the Ohio portion of the Little Beaver Creek Watershed, has partnered with other organizations to protect 5,261 acres through purchases, donations or conservation easements.
The merger marries LBCLF's history, experience and knowledge of the area with the Land Conservancy's much larger resources, officials with both organizations said.
"We have long been impressed with the great work done by the Little Beaver Creek Land Foundation and believe that by merging our two organizations we can dramatically advance our collective conservation mission in the region," said Land Conservancy President Rich Cochran.
"We have had a rewarding 20 years of growth," said longtime LBCLF Secretary-Treasurer Jackman S. Vodrey, "but to best serve the future protection of Little Beaver Creek, merging with the Land Conservancy is a giant step forward."
Vodrey said the merger will greatly enhance the watershed's "chances of gaining more and more preservation ... for the Little Beaver Creek areas that are most vulnerable to development." The watershed covers 323,160 acres and incorporates portions of Columbiana, Mahoning and Carroll counties in Ohio and Beaver and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania.
At their annual meeting Dec. 5, LBCLF members voted 48-2 to approve the merger. In a letter to members, LBCLF President Carol F. Bretz outlined seven reasons for the proposed merger, noting that the Land Conservancy has developed "successful partnerships" with local governments throughout northeast Ohio.
Bretz cited the "changing political landscape" in Ohio and the chance that oil and gas drilling will be allowed on state-owned land, including state parks and nature preserves, in the near future. "These developments concern us," she said. "Being a part of a larger organization gives us a bigger voice in Columbus."
Bretz also cited environmental challenges, including the lack of zoning and a comprehensive land use plan in Columbiana County. "The Utica Shale boom presents numerous environmental concerns," she said. "This is not a time when increased environmental efforts or regulations will be welcomed."
Hill said the Land Conservancy will, with its larger staff and better access to funding, be able to build on the work of the LBCLF. "We're bringing more resources to the table to help out," he said. "I'm hopeful that we will be able to greatly increase the amount of protected property in Columbiana County. ... I look at it as an opportunity."
The merger also benefits the Land Conservancy by increasing its size and the diversity of the land it seeks to protect, Hill said. "The organization sees an opportunity to protect some incredible natural resources. ... Getting down into the rolling foothills of Columbiana County-it's spectacular," he said. "I really appreciate the topography down there."
The Land Conservancy is the result of the merger of eight local land trusts in 2006 and has since been named one of the top 10 land trusts in the country by the Land Trust Alliance. LBCLF becomes the 12th local land trust to merge with the Land Conservancy, and Columbiana County becomes the 15th county in its service area, which now stretches from the Bass Islands of Lake Erie to Little Beaver Creek.
In six years, the Land Conservancy has preserved more than 430 properties and more than 33,000 acres in the 14-county region, including 6,033 acres in fiscal year 2012.
Under the terms of the merger, LBCLF will be represented on the Land Conservancy's board of trustees, and Columbiana County will become either a chapter or advisory council of the Land Conservancy. The organization plans to maintain the LBCLF office in Lisbon as a Land Conservancy field office, Hill said.
"We're new kids on the block," Hill said. "We have learned it's pretty darn important to get the involvement of local people."
The Little Beaver Creek Watershed includes Beaver Creek State Park and Little Beaver Creek, which is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and the Ohio Scenic Rivers Program. Designated as "wild" by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in 1974, Little Beaver Creek is home to 63 species of fish, 49 mammal species, 140 bird species and 46 species of reptiles and amphibians, including the endangered hellbender salamander.
Beaver Creek is one state park that has been identified at the state level as a possible future site for subsurface oil and gas drilling.