A guest post written by Brad Lane: Meet Your Local Land Trust – and interview with Tammy Wright, Executive Director
The Bur Oak Land Trust, formerly known as the Johnson County Heritage Trust, has deep roots in the Iowa City community and its influences can be historically dated back to 1978. First created by a lost opportunity on land acquisition and subsequent missed addition to Hickory Hill Park, the Johnson County Heritage Trust was formed by pioneering community members, including the late Nancy Seiberling, and has continued to grow alongside Iowa City for nearly 40 years. To give everyone a little insight as to what a land trust is, and why it’s important to Iowa City and the surrounding communities (as well as why they changed their name), Tammy Wright, current Executive Director of the Bur Oak Land Trust, was happy to give the inside scoop on why the Bur Oak Land Trust is here for the long haul:
Tammy Wright has been working with the Bur Oak Land Trust for 10 years and first started her conservation career with the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. She is currently the Executive Director of the Bur Oak Land Trust.
Fin & Feather: Put simply, what is a land trust and what is the Bur Oak Land Trust’s role within the community?
Tammy:There is a general definition of “land trust” that you can google, but in my mind, I say we are a non-profit land conservation organization. That’s what I describe us in a nutshell. We own nine properties and hold conservation easements on 14 others, and our goal as an organization is to protect the properties that we already own.
F&F: You mention that a goal of the organization is to protect properties you already own, what are some of the considerations you take in regards to obtaining new property?
Tammy: If somebody wants to donate their property to us, we need to make sure it is property that we have the capacity to take care of. There’s this big discussion about once you get land, you have to protect it, you have to take care of it, you can’t let it just be wild. So it’s this thing that if we don’t protect new land, even though we might not have the resources to take care of it right now, and it becomes asphalt, then it will never be protected. There’s this whole battle of whether we just accept the land and wait until we have the resources to take care of it, or do we limit ourselves and let the property slip by because we can’t necessarily take care of today the way it needs to be taken care of.
Tammy: Johnson County Heritage Trust was a very confusing name. With Johnson County in our title, people not only thought we were limited by county boundaries, but people also thought we were government-funded and a government entity, and then asked why they should give money to a government entity. With the word “heritage,” we had people thinking we were a historical society and we would get calls asking if we were interested in little treasures found in grandma’s attic. And with “trust” an without the word “land,” people thought we were a bank. It was confusing for various reasons and every place we went. Nobody knew who we were and what we did.
F&F: So how did the organization decide on the name Bur Oak Land Trust?
Tammy: When we were talking about what to rename our land trust, we discussed a lot of different options, and decided on Bur Oak Land Trust. We thought it be the perfect name not only because the Bur Oak is the only tree native to all 99 counties in Iowa, but also because Bur Oaks are strong and mighty, they have deep roots and branches that are far reaching. It was just the perfect visual that we wanted our organization to represent.
F&F: What are some of the ways people can volunteer with the Bur Oak Land Trust?
Tammy: First of all, we have very excellent, dedicated, hard-working, and passionate volunteers, who without them we couldn’t do even half of what we do. That being said, probably the thing that we have the most need for is actually being out on the land, whether its pulling garlic mustard or coming out for the workdays, and with all the work that needs to be done, it really takes a team of people. Anytime we can get a group of people out on the property, it’s great, and we really need both leaders of the group and people to be in the group.I always try and ask people who are interested in volunteering, what do you like to do?– Because if they like what are they doing, it will make them want to come back.
F&F: With another year wrapping up this month, what’s in the future forecast for the Bur Oak Land Trust?
Tammy: Always a big consideration for the future is building our endowment, and that is important because of what makes us different from a lot of other non-profits. Our mission and our goal is to be here forever, in perpetuity, and almost all other non-profits have a mission that is hopefully a shorter term. Once they achieve their mission, they’re done, and ideally there is no longer a need for their organization. I think that’s what every non-profit hopes to achieve: that they’re no longer needed.
For the Bur Oak Land Trust, we have conservation easements that go on forever, and our properties, we aim to keep and steward forever. So we need to be able to build an endowment that is going to allow us to do that. It’s that long-term mission that I believe makes our organization special and unique.