Conservation by the Numbers

Jack Savage | November 26, 2011

It is our sense of place that most often stirs those of us who strive to conserve land. There are special places in every New Hampshire community.  Even our cities have corners where nature still holds sway, providing respite from busy lives and a visual break in an otherwise brick and concrete skyline. Most citizens want these places, not just for ourselves but so that our children and grandchildren will benefit from them as well.

But as land trusts like the Forest Society have become more strategic about our land protection—endeavoring to focus on those lands that do the most to keep our water clean, our wildlife diverse, our  forests healthy and our soils productive—we have also sought to evaluate our progress in more measurable terms. Just how many acres are we protecting, and how many acres are enough?

The Land Trust Alliance, a national consortium of the more than 1,700 land trusts in the United States, conducts a “census” of land conservation every five years ( ). According to its most recent census, released this month, state, local and national land trusts collectively conserved some 10 million acres nationwide between  2006-2010. This compares to 13 million acres in the five previous years, 2001-2005. In total, it’s estimated that all land trusts have conserved 47 million acres nationally.

It’s hard to get one’s head around how much—or how little—10 million acres is. The state of New Hampshire is approximately 5.7 million acres. Maine is about three and a half times the size of New Hampshire, and Maine is still only the 39th largest state in the country.

Most of the land protected by land trusts is still in private hands, with the land trusts holding conservation easements that protect it from development.  State and local land trusts now hold conservation easements on 8.8 million acres nationally, and own outright 2.14 million acres.

By comparison, media moguls John Malone and Ted Turner are the number one and number two private landowners in America, owning 2.1 and 2 million acres respectively.  Malone garnered headlines early this year when he vaulted into the top spot by acquiring one million acres in Maine and New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire, approximately 30 percent (1.746 million) of our 5.7 million acres is protected, almost half of which is represented by the 800,000 acres that is the White Mountain National Forest.  State and local land trusts in New Hampshire have collectively protected 348,274 acres. The Forest Society holds conservation easements on approximately 120,000 acres and owns outright another 50,000 acres across 170 different Forest Reservations in 95 towns and cities in the state.

All of this tends to prompt the $64 million question: how much land should we protect? The Forest Society has attempted to provide a blueprint for the answer in our New Hampshire Everlasting vision statement. Released a decade ago, it suggests that the state would be served well by protecting an additional one million acres by the year 2026. If successful, that would leave the state with 40 percent of its land area conserved. Or, put another way, it would leave 60 percent of our land area open to development---development that would depend on the ecosystems services (like clean drinking water) provided by the undeveloped land.

But in the end, whether or not a particular place remains undeveloped still depends on willing landowners, the community, and whether there’s a sense that the land is a special place.

Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes, the quarterly magazine of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached at