Christian Freitag is a man on a mission of preservation in Southern Indiana. Executive Director of Sycamore Land Trust, Freitag oversees a small staff in Bloomington that’s responsible for preserving and maintaining over 8,000 acres of protected land in 26 counties.
Sycamore Land Trust was originally founded in 1990 by a local chapter of the Audubon Society after they were approached by a Bloomington resident who was looking for a way to secure and protect the natural beauty of his land after his death. The local chapter, known as the Sassafras chapter, was intrigued by the idea but recognized it was outside their jurisdiction. Undaunted, they did some research and eventually filed paperwork to form the non-profit land trust.
The group operated for 8 years with just volunteers and was able to obtain 500 acres of land before deciding they wanted to expand their efforts. The solution was to spend 2 years fundraising a salary to employ a part-time staff member.
“It was important to hire someone to wake up every morning and push the ball forward.” Freitag noted. And that such person just happened to be him.
Joining Sycamore Land Trust in 2000, he was the first and only official staff member. In the 13 years since he was hired Sycamore Land Trust has grown to 4 full-time and 2 part-time staff positions, a permanent headquarters at Lynton K. Caldwell’s old residence, a quadrupled membership base, and over 8,000 acres of protected land.
“Even though we’ve come an amazingly far way, we’ve exceeded my expectations, the founders, the other people involved, I think everyone has been quite proud.” Freitag said. “But it just makes you hungrier…the potential of what we do in the place that we do it is enormous. And as far as we’ve come we’ve just scratched the surface.”
Principles of Success
When it comes to running an organization—profit and non-profit alike—it can be difficult to balance business with advocacy. Too much or too little of either can leave a mission unproductive. But Freitag believes Sycamore Land Trust has found the perfect balance between the two by staying business-minded, non-political, and locally focused in order to increase membership and the number of acres protected.
“We make promises to people that use words like perpetuity. Perpetuity means forever.” Freitag explained, “If you’re going to make a forever promise to somebody you better take the steps to make sure that your business is strong and healthy and so we take that quite seriously…we can’t run it with our hearts alone.” Running with this idea, Freitag and the other members of Sycamore Land Trust operate with a business-focused approach making sure decisions are in the best interests—fiscally and otherwise—of the trust.
Additionally, Freitag attributes Sycamore Land Trust’s success to remaining non-political and distancing themselves from polarizing topics. Even Board Members are asked to check their political baggage at the door before a meeting so they can focus on the mission.
Freitag maintains that everyone should like what Sycamore Land Trust is doing, regardless of which political party they identify with. When asked by individuals or organizations to take sides on an issue Freitag said, “We’ve always put it through the filter of whether or not it’s going to protect more land in Southern Indiana and if it’s not then we don’t have any place in that fight.”
The third and final principle that has brought Sycamore Land Trust great success is a developing interest in localism. Freitag sees a correlation between the prominence of farmers markets and a growth in the trust’s membership and land acquisition.
“People can give 50 bucks to a multi-national group or they can give 50 bucks to the local environmental group and actually know that money is staying in Southern Indiana.” Freitag said. “In that sense, it’s not any different than wanting to buy your tomatoes or green beans from the guy down the road.”
A lawyer by trade, and a graduate from Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, Freitag is no stranger to the complexities of land rights and ownership. However, he says that Sycamore Land Trust’s preservation style can be summed up with, “We preserve land the old-fashion way: we own it.”
If you want to get technical, Sycamore Land Trust maintains land in two ways: outright ownership and holding land easements. In general, a majority of the protected land owned by the trust is donated by persons who want tot make sure their property is protected from development or being used in a way they see as unfit. Some donate their land upon receipt of their death. Others donate it during their lifetime to participate in tax breaks associated with the donation.
In terms of purchasing land, Sycamore Land Trust tends not to buy just any property that comes up for sale and prefers to reserve their funds for buying “special” properties. Special properties include holes in already established conservation spots or pieces of land that would add to a national or state park. Last year they bought about $4 million worth of land.
The second way in which Sycamore Land Trust procures land is through holding land easements, which are permanent contracts authorized by state statutes. Easements allow owners to retain their land but negotiate terms with a land trust on how the land is to be maintained and utilized.
“They need to work with us [Sycamore Land Trust] and we determine together what are the appropriate uses for that land that will allow people to own and use their land but also protect the things that make it a special place environmentally,” Freitag said about creating easement terms.
Even if the land is sold by the owner or passes to a family member in the event of a death, those terms still apply to the property. A violation of the established terms by anyone (including the original owner) is punishable under law. Currently, Sycamore Land Trust holds land easements on roughly 1,000 acres of family farms in Southern Indiana and they visit each easement about once or twice a year to make sure all terms are being met.
With a rise in pollution, extreme weather, and other environmental maladies, it’s hard not to feel negatively about the state of the earth. And while most are placing blame on humans in general, Freitag is looking specifically at environmentalists for creating a system of negativity and people loathing. Freitag is instead trying to focus Sycamore Land Trust’s mission on accentuating the positive.
“There’s reason to be frustrated but there’s also so much stuff we can do that can help.” He said.
He cites an instance at Goose Pond, a 7,000-acre wetland in Green County. After 5 years of the land being preserved, species of animals that hadn’t been seen for generations began to return to the area. This past winter more whooping cranes wintered in Southern Indiana than anywhere else in Eastern United States. “I look at that and I say there is hope in that.” Freitag said. “If you build it, they will come.”
In addition to perpetuating this optimism, Sycamore Land Trust strives to make land conservation a people-centric endeavor. They currently host educational programs for adults, senior citizens, and kids alike with activities like family hikes and volunteer opportunities. They also host over 3,000 school-age students every year for outdoor programs that teach about appropriate uses for land, awareness, and connectedness to nature. Freitag says it may be too late for the rest of us, but we can teach the next generation about the importance of land conservation and perpetuate the incremental good already being done.
“If we continue to do what we’ve been doing, Indiana will be a different place in a 100 years than it otherwise would be,” Freitag said. “Sycamore Land Trust is changing the course of Indiana’s natural history.”