Leigh Youngblood: Building Partnerships that Conserve Massachusetts

Leigh Youngblood

For the past 18 years, Leigh Youngblood, Executive Director of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust (“Mount Grace”), has run this regional land trust that operates in 23 cities and towns in north-central Massachusetts. During her tenure, Mount Grace has become the facilitator of numerous powerful conservation partnerships and initiatives that have resulted in thousands of acres of land being permanently protected.

In 1994, she was hired by Mount Grace as the part-time Land Protection Assistant. But just 6 months later, her boss moved on to a larger organization and she was promoted to the role of Executive Director, a position she continues to hold today. From that time when the total number of staff people consisted of just one, Leigh has developed the organization into an impressive conservation team of thirteen talented professionals plus four AmeriCorps volunteers.

In 1997, under Leigh’s leadership, Mount Grace brought together 25 public and private organizations to form the North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership in the interest of making coordinated land conservation a regional priority. The member organizations range from state and federal agencies, to local and regional non-profit groups, to individual private landowners—all of whom have an interest in protecting important land in the North Quabbin Region.

The Partnership has been very successful in doing just that. When a land conservation project is endorsed by the Partnership, the financial, political, and scientific resources of the member organizations can be collectively focused on that project’s success. Today, the Partnership is stronger than ever, and is very effective in helping advance conservation projects that benefit the overall community and ecology of the North Quabbin Region.

Leigh’s work at Mount Grace and the success of the North Quabbin Regional Partnership quickly earned her a reputation as a strong leader of a powerful conservation partnership. And so in 2000, when then Secretary of Environmental Affairs, Bob Durand, set out to establish an aggressive conservation initiative, he ultimately focused on protecting land in the Tully River Watershed area of the North Quabbin Region, with Leigh and Mount Grace an obvious choice to take on a very important role. The official name of the effort was “The Tully Valley Private Forest Lands Initiative” (AKA, the Tully Initiative), and Mount Grace was selected to be the lead land protection negotiator for the state-sponsored multi-million dollar 2-year program.

The Tully Initiative was aimed at conserving the relatively unfragmented forest within the Tully River Watershed, with a priority placed on protecting biodiversity, promoting good forestry practices, and preserving public access opportunities. Leigh acted as a broker for the state in negotiating the purchase of conservation restrictions on 90 different properties over 2 years. As Leigh explains it, “the partnership was a win-win for the state and Mount Grace. The state was able to provide the financial resources to conserve a significant amount of important land, but they didn’t have the capacity to provide the local landowner contact or organizational infrastructure needed to get the job done. Mount Grace and I were able to provide the professional expertise and dedicated staff needed to bring a tremendous amount of important land conservation projects in the region to completion.”

At the end of the 2 year period, a total of $9 million of state money was spent in the Tully River Watershed resulting in the protection of 9,000 acres. “I actually had to stop negotiating deals before we ran out of funds because we began to exceed the state’s capacity of reviewing and approving the due diligence and related documentation.”

With the North Quabbin Regional Landscape Partnership and the Tully Initiative, Leigh’s involvement and leadership in conservation partnerships had only just begun. Since that time, Leigh has helped to facilitate a series of multi-landowner and multi-partner landscape scale projects that have been funded by the Federal Forest Legacy Program. Leigh has lead Mount Grace in teaming up with other conservation groups that are active in the North Quabbin region to submit highly competitive applications to the federal government in request of a Forest Legacy grant, which have been met with great success.

The first of several successful Forest Legacy applications was called the “Quabbin Corridor Connection” and it proposed the conservation of 1,800 acres owned by 18 landowners. The application was accepted and funded, and the proposed conservation was successfully completed. For the current round of Forest Legacy applications (FY13), an application has been submitted from 5 land trusts (including Mount Grace and the North Quabbin Regional Partnership) and 1 state agency which focuses on protecting land within the Quabbin—Wachusett corridor. If the $5,045,000 grant request is awarded, a total of 3,000 acres owned by 23 landowners will be protected. If funded as proposed, the Quabbin Reservoir to Wachusett Mountain project would be the largest Forest Legacy grant received in Massachusetts since funding began in 1995. The project has been ranked 2nd out of the 69 state-ranked projects submitted from 42 states and territories, and funding the top 20 projects is proposed in President Obama’s current Budget Request.

Another Mount Grace initiative that benefits conservation beyond the scope of Mount Grace is the establishment of the Massachusetts Land Initiative For Tomorrow (MassLIFT) AmeriCorps program in 2010. MassLIFT was initiated and is managed by Mount Grace as a collaborative effort of regional conservation organizations seeking to increase the pace of land and watershed protection across Massachusetts. The current team of AmeriCorps members serves 14 MassLIFT partners by providing 20 AmeriCorps volunteers for land trusts across Massachusetts.

Leigh attributes her passion for land conservation to two of her grandparents who loved farming and the natural world. She had a grandfather in California who was an avid farmer, but didn’t own an acre of land, and a grandmother who passionately tended her organic garden on a vacant lot adjacent to her home in the City of Springfield, Massachusetts. It is plain to see that Leigh appreciates the value of an open acre as much as her grandparents surely did.

Leigh expresses that she is inspired and rewarded by the successes of Mount Grace because they have benefitted local people and communities while protecting so much ecologically important land. Even though Leigh has found so much value and success in forging partnerships to reach important conservation goals, she says that the most satisfying part of her job “is helping individual landowners who care about their land find a way to conserve it that works for them.”

Through Leigh’s conservation work, partnerships have been able to come together to protect numerous places that are important to many individuals and groups. And by working in partnership with so many different groups and individuals to protect those places, the broader landscape and ecology has benefitted tremendously—thanks to Leigh.