A Plan for the Land:
The Open Space Institute's Strategic Plan 2007-2009

Schunnemunk

Introduction & Mission

Since 1964, the Open Space Institute (OSI) has protected scenic, natural, and historic landscapes to ensure public enjoyment, conserve habitats, and sustain community character.  Rooted in the Hudson River Valley where OSI has protected land through direct acquisition, over the years we have steadily increased the geographic and programmatic scope of our efforts. OSI now achieves its goals through its three main programs: the New York Land Protection Program, the Conservation Finance Program and the Conservation Institute.

We protect open spaces using a broad array of conservation tools including: land acquisition, conservation easements, regional loan programs, re-granting initiatives, land planning initiatives, creative partnerships, and analytical research on conservation issues. Through these means, OSI has assisted in protecting nearly 2.1 million acres across the eastern United States, creating recreational parklands, supporting working forests and farms, protecting natural resources and preserving historic sites for current and future generations.

After nearly a year of internal assessment by OSI staff and trustees, the Open Space Institute finalized a comprehensive Strategic Plan in December 2006. This summary of the 35-page plan outlines how, from 2007 to 2009, the Open Space Institute will expand and integrate the work of its programs to further OSI’s effectiveness as a leading land conservation organization at a time when land preservation needs are acute.

 

OSI Core Values

The first step in developing a strategic plan was to define the core values that guide the work of the Open Space Institute. We strive to:

Protect our natural heritage
Open landscapes are a part of our cultural and ecological heritage, a legacy we want to preserve holistically for future generations.
Preserve our natural capital
In protecting landscapes, we also are guarding the natural capital of ecosystem services, e.g., clean air and clean water, by promoting policies and practices that preserve and enhance them.
Achieve a balance between nature and people
To balance the needs of nature and people, we recognize that the environmental and economic circumstances of each region will require different approaches to conservation.
Commit to partnerships
Partnerships with public agencies and other non-profits are integral in achieving our mission. Through them we are able to put our assets to work in collaborative efforts that leverage our resources and permit us to accomplish more.
Be creative
We recognize the need to be creative, flexible and experimental in our land conservation strategies, taking calculated risks to leverage our capital and effectively use our resources.

 

The Importance of Land Conservation Now

As population pressures rise and the search for new building sites escalates, time is running out for land conservation efforts in the eastern United States. The demand has caused real estate prices to skyrocket, making it increasingly prohibitive to protect open spaces.

Add to the mix inadequate regulatory tools that are primarily administered by local governments unable to coordinate with one another and the result is an assault on open space and working landscapes in the early part of the 21st century. 

According to the Brookings Institute, we are losing our land at a rate of two million acres of forests, farms and open spaces each year. It is being transformed into subdivisions linked by highways that are lined with shopping malls, and some of the resulting casualties are compromised air and water quality, along with loss of animal habitat and places for the human spirit to renew itself. 

Facing these challenges, the Open Space Institute is working harder than ever to protect the landscape, knowing that when it comes to land conservation it is now or never.

 

CHALLENGES

Rate of Development
Across the eastern seaboard, but especially in the northeast, dense population pressures and life style changes are meeting a limited land base, resulting in an unsustainable rate of development.

Escalating Real Estate Costs
Land trusts are losing purchasing power. As public funds for conservation dwindle, money for private land development, from Wall Street to corporate real estate tax breaks, continually outweigh conservation resources.

Shifting Ownership
Some of the nation’s largest landowners, including major corporations such as timber companies, are liquidating their assets to the highest bidder, often in areas that have few protections in place to determine what type of development will follow.

Reliability of Federal Funding
The federal government can no longer be depended on as a significant source of funding for future conservation efforts as it has been in the past. According to a recent study by Defenders of Wildlife, conservation funding has averaged $3 to 4 billion nationwide per year from all sources.  In just the last few years, federal funding has fallen from 1/6th of that amount to 1/30th.

 

OPPORTUNITES

Create Partnerships More than ever, diverse parties are collaborating to develop new and creative land conservation solutions.

Engage Local Communities Local governments and land trusts are critical partners because they are capable of raising substantial funds (e.g., bond acts, real estate transfer taxes) and are irreplaceable allies in implementing regulatory regimens to capture and preserve the “commons” (clean water, recreation, wildlife, carbon sequestration) inherent in open spaces.

Leverage Our Assets  By leveraging OSI assets, limited conservation funding becomes more effective.

Create Better Policies By working with the public and private sectors to create land use policies and market-based tools, land conservation can be accelerated.   
Encourage Working Landscapes Working farms and forests are becoming more valuable as open space than ever before as development encroaches.

 

ACTION PLAN

Focus on Specific Geographies

Over the next three years, we will define our success in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast by completing exemplary conservation deals that are consistent with our mission, demonstrate conservation leadership, and maximize public and private resources. 

New York State

We plan to acquire between 15,000 and 20,000 acres of key open space parcels. We will focus principally on the Catskills, Adirondacks and on discrete agricultural landscapes. At the same time, we will build on past accomplishments in the Hudson Highlands, Shawangunks and Capital Region.

We seek to influence New York State Policy on open space planning and acquisitions:

  • Working with conservation partners to increase the size of the Environmental Protection Fund to $500 million annually;
  • Working to increase contributions from New York City for watershed protection to $40 million annually;
  • Working with local governments to get approval on local government bond acts in our focus areas.
  • We will refine and improve stewardship activities by having a strong plan in place for each property and transferring other properties we hold to appropriate partners.
 

Between 2007 and 2009 the Conservation Finance Program intends to make 15-25 loans totaling $30 million primarily to mid-sized land trusts to protect between 125,000 and 175,000 acres of land. 

Northern Forest (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York)
OSI has protected 1.6 million acres through the Northern Forest Protection Fund since 2000. We will focus our re-grant and loan capital in three ways: to protect large forested landscapes, to complete projects described in state wildlife plans, and to support the town forest model.

Western Massachusetts and New Jersey
Using Program Related Investments (PRIs), we will provide low-cost bridge financing to non-profits to acquire land or easements.  We are researching the extension of this work to southeastern Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Southern Appalachians
Through our lending and re-grant program, we will focus on a five-state region (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama) with a particular focus on western North Carolina and northern Georgia through our partnership with the Lyndhurst Foundation.

 

Enhance OSI’s Reputation as a Conservation Leader

OSI has been a frontrunner in protecting lands in New York and demonstrating leadership across the eastern seaboard through our loan and re-grant program.  We want to further exert our leadership through the Conservation Institute’s work and to be regarded as a knowledgeable, honest broker whose advice and counsel is sought on important land conservation issues.  Our leadership will be strengthened if we:

  • Make strategic land acquisitions in New York and use this platform to influence land conservation policies and financing at the state level.
  • Remain the leading conservation lender in the eastern US as measured by volume of loans, acres protected and funds leveraged. We need to raise foundation grants and PRIs to finance third-party land conservation.
 

We have high aspirations for our newest program, the Conservation Institute.  It will help us to establish an external reputation for high-quality research that catalyzes land conservation funding and action, including regularly presenting research and conservation findings at regional and national conferences. 

We want to determine creative ways to meld regulatory and compensatory approaches to achieve effective land conservation. This will involve developing tools to assist local, county and state governments in open space planning and green zoning, and providing targeted analysis of the impacts of proposed developments in key landscapes such as we have done in Maine with the Plum Creek analysis. 

We also want to help create synergies between sustainable land use and land conservation efforts through authoring studies such as our well-received New York Capital Sprawl report.

 

Increase Focus on Working Landscapes: Farms & Forests

With dwindling public funds, rising real estate prices and concerns about lands being taken off tax rolls, we need to create new approaches to protect working landscapes. Farms and forests support local sustainable economies, contain sprawl and help provide critical buffers to parklands.

OSI will implement a place-based farmland protection strategy in two to three discrete regions of agricultural significance using a broad array of tools including fee acquisition, easements, loans, land inventory assessments, land use planning, partnerships, regulatory structure amendments, and marketing.

Priority geographies include the Catskills, the Kinderhook Creek Corridor, and the Rondout and Wallkill valleys that are adjacent to the Shawangunk Ridge, where we have protected over 24,000 acres.

To be successful we will need to work closely with partners whose competencies complement our own.  We also are committed to leveraging our earmarked farmland funds to ensure that meaningful levels of farmland can be protected.

We plan to optimize use of PDR programs (i.e., state and federal) in our priority geographies.  Our intention is to attract PDR funds to at least three farmland protection projects in our priority landscapes annually.

OSI will determine promising approaches for sustainable management of working farms and forests.  We are committed to ensuring that our acquisition and easement purchases support sustainable farm and forest operations.  The first steps are an assessment of the ecological basis of easements on agricultural lands in New York State, and finishing analysis of working forest easements to improve their ecological and economic effectiveness.

We want to educate forest practitioners and help improve the working forest easement tool.  This will involve increasing the impact of and funding for the Conservation Forest Network.

 

Use Capital Creatively

We plan to raise and leverage outside capital, which is consistent with our goals and transaction-based approach, to conserve as much land as possible as quickly as possible.  Over the next three years, we want to raise $11.5 million for the CFP ($6.5 million for New England; $3 million for the Southeast; and $2 million for new regions) and $10-20 million for the NY Land program. 

OSI will undertake regional assessments to leverage public and private capital for conservation.  We also plan to analyze markets for ecosystem services (e.g., water, carbon, recreation, biodiversity) and relevance to land conservation.  The first step is to complete an assessment on harnessing private investor capital for forest conservation.

We will optimize OSI’s capital position for maximum flexible capital (unrestricted assets) by the end of 2009. We plan to do this by having:

  • 50-75% take out (on average) for our projects
  • Enhanced criteria for leaving “money in the ground” when we choose to invest our own funds or subsidize the work of others such as NGOs
  • A 50% match from our conservation partners (on average) in all deals
  • Reduced land inventory to minimize carrying and stewardship costs;
  • Unrestricted asset pool totaling $10-15 million by the end of 2009
 

OSI also will earmark funds for special initiatives.  We are undertaking a recreational assessment of the Catskills and Adirondacks that is expected to be completed in 2009.  We also have a partnership with the Lyndhurst Foundation to create a matching capital and loan fund to facilitate acquisition projects on state wildlife management action plans (SWAPs) in northern Georgia and western North Carolina.  The objective is to protect at least 3,000 acres in northern Georgia and at least 5,000 acres of land in western North Carolina.

 

Coordinate Programs and Support Activities

OSI’s distinct programs increase the tools at our disposal to achieve far-reaching land conservation goals. These programs in turn are supported by External Affairs (Development and Communications) and other support operations. 

The NY Land program, in addition to acquiring land, plans to work with the CFP to make three to five loans annually to New York conservation organizations, and to work with the Conservation Institute to present at least one major research paper annually addressing a New York conservation issue.

The Conservation Institute will serve as the internal R&D center of OSI, helping inform and shape the NY Land and CFP programs. Working closely with External Affairs, it will serve as an outlet for the innovations, products and activities of OSI’s other programs. In the near term, it will assist in developing promising new directions for OSI’s farm program, and publish the first Catskills Assessment.

 

Conclusion

For more than forty years, the Open Space Institute has played a critical role in protecting the landscapes you love, and we recognize that this is a critical time in the history of land conservation. Facing mounting pressures, open spaces are disappearing, and when they are gone, they are gone forever. Building on decades of experience, OSI is deepening our commitment to protecting open spaces through improving and expanding our programmatic and geographic areas. The Strategic Plan is the roadmap that will guide us over the next three years.

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