Creating Community Wealth: Debt as a Tool for Conservation

- Blog
Caitlin Guthrie TCF

Guest Post by Caitlin Guthrie, Associate Director of Conservation Loans program, The Conservation Fund, and Washington Association of Land Trusts Board Member.

Caitlin has a unique perspective of The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Loans program. Prior to joining the Fund as Conservation Loans’ Associate Director, Caitlin was a borrowing partner of the program while working for Capitol Land Trust. She has observed firsthand the positive effects that the program’s bridge financing and technical assistance provide, and shares with us how innovative land trusts throughout Washington are proactively advancing conservation in their communities.


What does debt have to do with conservation? Many communities and conservation organizations face pressing deadlines to protect important natural areas. And often they don’t have years, months or even weeks to spare to raise the funds needed to conserve these places, valued for unique natural, habitat, and historic qualities. These unprotected and precious lands where we play, explore and dream will likely be gone in thirty years if we don’t take immediate action when the opportunity arises.

The Conservation Fund founded its Conservation Loans program in 1993 to address this dilemma. We often heard a variation of: “we need a partner who understands our local conservation and community priorities—a partner who can swiftly provide flexible financing, so that we can seize opportunities to protect the places that matter most.”

Twenty-five years on, our Conservation Loans program has provided $7.6 million in loans to Washington land trust partners. Land trusts have used our bridge funding to protect over 1,300 acres in 11 projects across the state, and the need for ready conservation capital continues to grow. The funds are “revolving,” meaning that once our loans are repaid, we reinvest the dollars in other conservation projects as soon as possible.

Many land trusts are adapting the tools of the financial marketplace—tools that we use for business and personal success every day—to proactively protect parks, natural areas, forests, farms, and trails for the benefit of all. These non-profit innovators recognize that urgent conservation and community priorities often cannot wait for funding to become available.

For example, when Whidbey Camano Land Trust saw an opportunity to create the only public beach access to Possession Sound on southeast Whidbey Island, the Trust knew that they had limited time to act.

“Three adjacent waterfront properties with different owners coming on the market at the same time was such a rare opportunity. Even as we went under contract, other offers were coming in. The Conservation Fund’s land conservation loan was the only chance we had to make this happen.”
—Ryan Elting, Conservation Director

A loan from The Conservation Fund gave them the capital they needed to complete the purchase of three adjoining waterfront properties. The land trust plans to restore the properties to improve water quality and habitat for salmon and other wildlife. Island County will eventually own a conservation easement on the properties, ensuring permanent public access.

Whidbey Camano Land Trust and our other partners in the state are leaders in community conservation—not only do they use bridge funding and debt to conserve land for public access, wildlife, and food security, they also create outdoor classrooms, honor cultural heritage, and preserve trails. This is true community wealth.

Our mission is to help accelerate the pace of conservation in your community. Do you have a conservation dream? We don’t have the time to spare, so let’s make it a reality before it’s too late.

Read the full article here.