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Protecting land yields lasting dividends

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Seth Coffman

By Seth Coffman

In today's society of instant gratification and immediate access, it's easy to think in the short term and fail to consider the broad, longterm impacts of our decisions and actions. Twenty-four hour news feeds, smart phones, Twitter and Facebook - it's all at our fingertips and one tweet or Facebook post is quickly replaced by the next. As information technology continues to accelerate how we send, receive and store information, "the next great thing" is only a touch screen away, increasing the distance between us and our tangible experiences with our communities and the natural environment.

But what of the values and resources that persist and are not just passing fads? Of far greater importance, and warranting our thoughtful consideration and nurturing attention, are our water, soil, air and food. These are the essential, real components of our environment and make up the treasured countryside of Shenandoah County. They were here long before us and will be here after us - but in what quantity and condition?

Fortunately, landowners who choose to protect their farm and forest lands are preserving those essential resources by making decisions that pay dividends now and into the future for them, their families, their communities, and the generations of Shenandoah County residents to come. Through land conservation - the voluntary protection of agricultural lands, forest resources, scenic landscapes and wildlife habitat on private lands - these landowners are providing economic, cultural, environmental and biological benefits to the public that will last far beyond the daily news cycle and social media trends.

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." - Aldo Leopold, "A Sand County Almanac," 1948.

Land conservation meets these criteria because it protects the natural, cultural and historic resources that are invaluable assets to our communities and define who we are. Retaining the most productive land for farming ensures its availability for future farmers and secures agriculture as the backbone of the county's economy. Retaining our forests and other natural landscapes maintains environmental quality and provides beautiful places attracting tourist and recreational users that boost our local economy. Preserving rural lands maintains the quality and supply of our drinking water as well as water for livestock and crops, and the health of fish and other aquatic life. By electing to preserve their land, private landowners exhibit stewardship and a land ethic that benefits everyone.

Land conservation allows us to achieve the balance between developed and undeveloped acreage that is the hallmark of healthy communities and is essential to our broad economic well-being. County policies such as the comprehensive plan and the recently adopted Community Planning Project support land conservation and balanced growth. When rural land is preserved and new housing and industry are channeled to existing towns and cities, local taxpayers benefit from the significantly lower cost of public services, such as school sites, utilities and roads.

Land conservation in the county can take many forms. Shenandoah County has a robust Agricultural and Forestal District Program with over 45,000 acres enrolled throughout 21 districts. Landowners in the program agree to keep their land in forestry and/or agricultural use and not develop or subdivide their land for a minimum of 10 years. Perpetual conservation easements can also be voluntarily placed on a property by the landowner. The county's Conservation Easement Authority, an element of county government established in 2007, is available to assist landowners who wish to permanently protect from future development the family farms and lands they hold dear. Currently, over 5,000 acres of private land are permanently protected with conservation easements in Shenandoah County.

Preserving the integrity, stability and beauty of our county are abiding principles we must consider when making decisions about the future use of our land. Whether you live on a farm, on a remote homestead or in or near one of our historic towns or hamlets, rural peace of mind, thriving towns, clean water and air, fresh food, low taxes and good schools are among the dividends paid by land conservation in Shenandoah County.

If you are interested in preserving the land you cherish, more information is available at www.shenandoahforum.org and at the Conservation Easement Authority's website, www.shenandoahcountyva.us/committees/cea.

This is the second in a series of columns on area agriculture and conservation issues provided by Shenandoah Forum, a group of citizen volunteers established in 2001 to encourage active and informed citizen participation in maintaining Shenandoah County's rural, agricultural and historic character, a healthy environment and sustainable economy.

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