Killbuck Watershed Land Trust approaches 20-year anniversary

Killbuck Watershed Land Trust approaches 20-year anniversary

Brinkhaven Oak Barrens, owned by the Killbuck Watershed Land Trust, is managed like a prairie savannah, and this ecosystem is actually dependent on periodic disturbances like grazing, fire or drought with this image showing a prescribed burn done in 2016. This property is adjacent to the Holmes County Rail Trail, and due to that synergy, the KWLT eventually plans to open the property to the public for recreation opportunities.


The Killbuck Watershed Land Trust is approaching its 20th anniversary this year. As it reaches this milestone, many might wonder, "Why is it important to invest in ecological protection and farmland preservation in this region? And how does the KWLT accomplish its mission?"

“Many people don't realize that the Killbuck Watershed is already good quality and hosts a good mix of wildlife. We have some unique ecosystems and wetlands here that have different types of birds that aren't common in other parts of the state. But we have to manage our land to maintain that good quality so it won't deteriorate,” said Michelle Wood, program administrator with the Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District.

The Holmes SWCD collaborates regularly with the KWLT. “The KWLT and Holmes SWCD have overlapping missions in that we are working to maintain or improve the water quality of the Killbuck Creek Watershed. We’re just going about it in different ways,” Wood said.

The Holmes SWCD works with residents and landowners in the watershed to help them manage their land in a way that minimizes erosion, improves soil health and ultimately leads to better water quality.

“We don't have the ability to buy land like the KWLT does, and we don't have the funds or the expertise that they have," Wood said. "It's an amazing amount that their volunteers put in. We aren't set up with the type of legal expertise they have either, so we are thrilled that they are here to fill that niche for people who want to preserve their land intact."

The KWLT was formed 20 years ago for precisely that reason: It noticed there was a gap in the region for an organization to work directly with landowners to help them preserve or protect their land with a conservation easement that works with their specific goals and values.

“Since the beginning, one of our goals was to have an outlet for farmers. Any landowner who is concerned about their property being developed either when they sell it or pass it on to heirs, they come to us. They want their large tracts of land to stay large and not be subdivided,” said Randy Carmel, president of the KWLT board.

The land trust has several different mechanisms for helping landowners. It offers land protection, where a landowner transfers the title of the land to the KWLT, and also easements, both conservation and farmland preservation. In those cases the landowner maintains possession of the land, but the land is permanently protected from future development.

The land trust has grown significantly over the past 20 years. It has expanded due to a strong need to fill a regional gap and now covers the counties of Wayne, Holmes, Ashland, Richland, Coshocton and Tuscarawas.

“Most of our landowners come to us through word of mouth, from another farmer who had a good experience. We have people who have no idea what to do, and they just know they don’t want their farm to be broken up,” said attorney Robert Stutzman, also a KWLT board member. “We have expanded based upon demand. We decided it was better to have the property preserved than to turn people away. People really didn't have other options. There aren't a lot of other organizations around here doing this type of work.”

The approach has worked, and the land trust now manages 10,000 acres of land. A 2015 business-sustainability plan written for the land trust found it's rare for a fully volunteer-led organization to manage such a large quantity of land.

The 2015 business plan was conducted by three students of KWLT board member and College of Wooster professor Matt Mariola through the college’s Social Entrepreneurship program. The plan compared six similar land trusts from across the state of Ohio, concluding, “KWLT is an outlier in relation to many other land trusts in Ohio. While KWLT has the largest number of easements and acreage conserved out of these six other land trusts, it invests the least hours and money per easement.”

The plan offered recommendations for various funding sources so the KWLT could hire a part-time executive director. However, based upon further analysis, the board made a decision not to pursue hiring of that position. Even so, the KWLT continues to pursue projects. One example is a property it owns in Holmes County called Brinkhaven Oak Barrens, which was obtained using grants from the Clean Ohio Program and private donations. This property is adjacent to the Holmes County Rail Trail, and due to that synergy, the KWLT eventually plans to open the property to the public for recreation opportunities.

For more information on preserving your land or to become a member, visit Donations can be mailed to the office at P.O. Box 1114, Wooster, OH 44691.

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