Q&A with Nick Norton, Executive Director of the Washington Association of Land Trusts

Nick Norton, WALT Executive Director
April 8, 2022

(Photo: The San Juan Preservation Trust (SJPT), of WALT’s 32 member organizations, hosted Preschool students creating a hibernaculum at Eureka Preserve. SJPT has partnered with schools to make several SJPT preserves available as “learning landscapes” that foster the nature-kid connection. Photo courtesy of Amy Plant.)

Tell us a bit about your role with the Washington Association of Land Trusts (WALT).

WALT is a small but plucky shop with a staff of two that serves the needs of over 30 nonprofit conservation organizations working in every corner of the state. So, as you might guess, I get to wear a ton of different hats as the Executive Director: setting strategy, leading legislative initiatives, building coalitions, writing grants, coordinating conferences, doing payroll…the kitchen sink. Any time a valuable opportunity emerges for a strong cross-section of our membership, Megan Nann (WALT’s Program Coordinator) and I put our heads together and figure out how to make it a reality. Never a dull day!


For those not very familiar with WALT, could you give readers the quick history of your organization’s work and impact?

At its founding, WALT was essentially a table around which people could share successes, approaches, and lessons learned as the land trust movement began to pick up steam. Since 2008, when we became our own bonafide organization, WALT has been a dedicated hub for Washington’s private voluntary land conservation organizations. Across the state, our member land trusts are at the forefront of work to safeguard a diverse and connected natural world, support a vibrant working-lands economy, broaden access to the outdoors, and foster an ethic of engagement with the landscapes that sustain our quality of life. To date, our members have conserved well over one million acres of vital open space and represent a community of staff, board members, supporters, and volunteers over 60,000 strong.

Essentially, WALT unites these diverse private land trusts into a collective voice for the state, while supporting a thriving community to enhance the scale, impact, and relevance of our member’s efforts. Over the years, we’ve had the chance to help expand eligibility to nonprofits for some of our state’s key conservation funding programs, been a leader in building new tools that meet the needs of practitioners, and delivered many hundreds of timely workshops to support our hungry network!


In light of the WA 2022 Legislative Session’s recent wrap-up, we’d love to hear your perspective on points of celebration, tension, and disappointment affecting your priority work going forward.

Here comes the acronyms! The most exciting development for us was the allocation of $2 million (pending governor approval) in pilot funding for the Farmland Protection and Land Access (FPLA) Program at the WA State Conservation Commission. WALT has been working for the last 4-5 years to develop a financing pipeline that supports the dual outcomes of farmland conservation and land access, and FPLA represents a key piece of that effort. 

The “traditional” model of working lands conservation involves collaborating with a stable, committed landowner to conserve their property and its working status in perpetuity. However, because of changing demographics and market conditions, landowners are less likely to have a successor and may be in a position where they need to sell quickly. Through FPLA and new sources of loan capital (keeping reading…), we’re trying to find a way to turn these challenges into an opportunity by allowing conservation organizations to 1) acquire land quickly from willing sellers, 2) lower the price by protecting it, and 3) helping facilitate a transition to an aspiring producer who may otherwise have been priced out of the market or needed a more flexible financing approach.

On a less positive note, we were saddened that the Keeping Washington Evergreen Act did not get very far during this legislative session. The lack of state tools and funding to support upland forest protection has long been a priority issue for our membership, and we see a lot of great opportunities slip through our collective fingers as a result. This legislation, as proposed, would have helped harness data and create momentum around avoiding forest conversion through voluntary incentives.


What are the most pressing barriers to your success as an association of land trusts? What policy, cultural, or economic changes are needed for your work to thrive?

You mean besides habitat degradation in the face of climate change, declining per capita natural resources funding in the state legislature, stark environmental health disparities, and a lack of engagement in land conservation among the general public? I can think of a few…but here is a specific example:

Over the last couple years, I have been working on how to make borrowing money (i.e. debt financing) easier, more affordable, and more effective. I have come to think that there is an increasingly wide gap between the realities of protecting and safeguarding our last, best private lands for future generations, and the responsiveness and availability of public funding sources. Land trusts are increasingly seen as key partners who can address that gap by leveraging private money, community trust, volunteers, and technical expertise in ways that cities, counties, or state agencies might not be able to. However, I still hear stories every month of incredible projects that get away due to a lack of bridge financing.

But I think we are making some headway! Last fall, the Washington State Housing and Finance Commission allocated $7 million in discretionary funding as part of a revolving loan fund to support land trusts in farmland protection and land access. We have an emerging partnership with the Department of Ecology focusing on making their Clean Water State Revolving Fund more accessible for non-point land acquisition projects. And, a private donor has recently stepped up to support loans to smaller land trust organizations to help them with legacy defining projects that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.


How has the COVID pandemic impacted your work? Has it opened up any new ways of seeing how your work can be accomplished?

More than ever, I’ve heard stories from land trusts about new people coming out to preserves to release the pressure valve of daily life or connect safely with friends and family on a new adventure. This has brought a whole new cohort of people into the conservation community, who were able to see how open space is connected to their quality of life. We’ve also experienced a large uptick in community members who were spurred to examine their legacy in the face of the public health crises, and wanted to leave a gift in their estate to support local open spaces for future generations.

On the less positive side from my perspective, the real estate market has gone pretty bananas in a lot of places, with skyrocketing demand for rural, scenic homes. Obviously, this has put a tremendous amount of pressure on many high-priority conservation targets across the region. Appraisal values jumped nearly overnight, and many conservation practitioners, be they NGOs or local governments, are scrambling to try and figure out how to bridge that gap.

So, yeah, it’s been a very dynamic couple of years.


How is your organization thinking about and leaning into diversity, equity, and inclusion?

There is a huge amount of variation in where our different member organizations are in their journey to meaningfully and authentically address DEI at the level of personal competencies, organizational culture and policy, and conservation partnerships and programming. Frankly, it has been a difficult process to figure out where WALT is best placed to support this collective moral imperative together with 30+ organizations that are reflective (or not) of their local landscapes and community. For example, the goals and needs of a smaller, rural land trust in Eastern Washington are vastly different from a larger organization in a coastal, urban area.

However, I am encouraged by the momentum that has emerged from years of conversation and reflection. For one, we have brought a strong equity and inclusion lens into our education programming, specifically as it relates to Northwest Land Camp, the bi-ennial conference that we host with the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts. This event serves as something of a drumbeat for our community and helps to set the tone for how we hold ourselves as conservation practitioners, so it’s imperative that we elevate voices and topics that question our prevailing assumptions, “traditional” models, and reveal our collective blind spots.

In addition, we are set to host an equity-focused communications series this fall in collaboration with our partners at Resource Media, and our membership recently endorsed a multi-year investment strategy to bring on a DEI consultant to develop and implement a statewide initiative.


How has WALT leaned into the emerging “Land-Back” movement in recognition of indigenous knowledge and land management practices? 

One of the most active areas of discussion and deliberation among our membership right now is focused on how, as people and organizations, we can better align with local Indigenous priorities and use our time and tools to address historic injustices. There are many different facets to that journey beyond simply transitioning land into tribal ownership. If the land comes with encumbrances required by public funding, for example, that may not be a truly just outcome. Alternatively, some members have placed cultural easements on specific parcels in order to provide the opportunity for reasonable and accustomed uses in perpetuity. And others have been systematically working with tribal partners to envision a more holistic land use strategy based on important cultural sites and ceremonies.

There are many moving examples of this journey in action in recent years, whether it is the San Juan Preservation Trust helping return Haida Point on Orcas Island to the Lummi Nation, North Olympic Land Trust in long-term partnership with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe to support restoration of the Dungeness River floodplain, or the release of Chinook salmon in the Little Spokane River after over 110 years of absence.


Any recommendations for inspiring, compelling, challenging, or worrying stories about land conservation, stewardship, food security, or the future of farming? 

This is totally a shameless plug, but we release a monthly newsletter that shares recent successes from the land trust community and spotlight successes on our website. Also, I’m pretty excited about the impending release of our first ever statewide impact report, entitled Groundswell, that illustrates what our members have accomplished over the last couple years and tells stories of the people and partnerships that animate their efforts. If you’re looking for inspiration, that’s a great place to start!