Skip to main content

Working With Land Trusts To Create and Conserve Habitat Across New England

By Erin Cocca on 3. May 2024
Erin Cocca

Land trusts can manage private land for conservation

As someone who grew up in upstate New York, I was lucky to have lots of access to public lands like state, county, or town-owned parks and preserves. When I first moved to the coast of Maine for work, I was confused about how little “public” land there was for recreation and conservation of habitat. Instead, I encountered many places that resembled the park lands I was used to, but were run by various organizations with “land trust,” “conservation trust” or “heritage trust” in the name. I soon learned that these were all forms of “land trusts”, and could indeed be a great tool for conservation.

Land trusts are private organizations that can be created for the purpose of land conservation or preservation. This is either done by buying entire land parcels outright or creating an easement agreement with other private landowners. Private landowners still own the land, but the easement creates rules often about preserving land use. Conservation oriented land trusts often have the ability to protect pieces of the land from development and to implement habitat improvements and other conservation projects. They are especially prolific throughout New England. There are over 80 land trusts in the State of Maine where I am located, and they have a variety of goals for conserving land. These include protecting wildlife habitat, protecting other natural resources like water, and protecting historic local agricultural lands or other open lands from development or abandonment. 


Several purple flowers in a field of tall grasses
 By leaving this New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) untouched well past summer, one of my local land trusts ensured that its flowers can keep feeding pollinators late into fall. (Photo: Erin Cocca).


The Xerces Society helps land trusts protect pollinators and other wildlife

When I first learned of my local land trusts, I immediately got to work exploring, hiking, and running these lands that were technically private but almost always open to the public. I also began to work with these land trusts professionally assisting with habitat management and creation work. The Xerces Society partners with many different land owners and managers to help them create spaces that work for both people and wildlife. As a pollinator conservation specialist, the habitat I help with is mostly for native pollinators, such as bumble bees and monarch butterflies. Sometimes, I also help agricultural producers or private landowners develop pest management strategies that don't rely on pesticides, such as attracting beneficial insects. 

Recently, I visited the Orono Land Trust to help with their conservation efforts. They are creating a new parking lot for a popular network of trails on a large tract of conservation land. These trails are used for hiking, running, and mountain biking in the summer, and they switch to ski trails when they get blanketed in snow each year. While creating this new parking lot, they wanted to create a vegetated buffer around its perimeter. They got in contact with me to help develop a plan to plant native plants within this buffer in the hopes that they will provide nectar and pollen resources to native insects in the area. 


Using a fly to protect the already endangered American chestnut from a beetle pest

While meeting at this parking lot site, Bucky Owen, a board member of the land trust, asked if I wanted to see their newly planted chestnut grove. We headed down the dirt road to a small opening in the forest with around 100 American chestnut trees, standing about eight feet tall. American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) were once abundant, but are now critically endangered due to a disease, chestnut blight, that came from another introduced chestnut species. This orchard is a ”gene preservation orchard”, containing offspring from about 20 remaining “mother” chestnut trees from the northeast. In addition to conserving genetic material, the trees in this orchard could be used for interbreeding with blight tolerant hybrid chestnut trees once they are developed.


A grove of young chestnut trees, about 8ft tall, planted in neat rows within a large forest clearing. Two people are knelt by one tree, inspecting it.
The Orono Land Trust regularly checks on the American chestnuts, to ensure that they are growing healthily. (Photo: Bucky Owen).


This summer, the young chestnut trees were covered in swarms of Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica), an invasive species, feeding on the foliage. Bucky diligently plucked beetles off the chestnut trees each morning, while also counting how many had been parasitized by a particular fly. The winsome fly (Istocheta aldrichi) is the beetle’s “natural enemy”: it is a parasitoid that lays its eggs on the Japanese beetle, killing adults and keeping beetle populations from getting out of hand. Winsome flies are also originally from Japan, and were introduced to the United States to help control the spread of Japanese beetles.

Inspired by the observance and dedication of this beetle monitoring, I suggested that I could help plan some habitat plantings that may encourage more winsome flies at the site. This opening had little flowering vegetation other than the chestnut trees, so I developed a planting guide which included a list of plants that are known to host winsome flies, or beneficial flies in general. These species included flowers like golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and goldenrods (Solidago sp.). The hope is that providing more floral resources for these parasitic flies will make them healthier and increase their populations, allowing them to further control the Japanese beetle population.


An iridescent beetle, with color shifting from bronze to green, with a small oval blob on its back, which is actually the egg of a parasitoid fly.
This Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica) has already been “attacked” by the winsome fly. The small white oval on the beetle’s back is actually the fly’s egg. Once it hatches, the larva will eat the beetle, killing it. (Photo: Frederic Desmeules CC-BY-NC).


With the planting guidance report that I developed, Orono Land Trust will apply for funding through the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) to implement the habitat plantings.  This means they will be waiting to hear if their application is funded until next winter, and they hope to get planting in the Spring of 2025. With luck, the young chestnut trees will have fewer beetles to worry about next summer, and the pollinators that fly by the new parking lot will have something to eat!



As a pollinator and beneficial insect conservation planner and partner biologist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Erin provides technical assistance on pollinator and other beneficial insect conservation in the state of Maine. This work includes planning, designing, installing, and managing habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Your Support Makes a Difference!

Xerces’ conservation work is powered by our donors. Your tax-deductible donation will help us to protect the life that sustains us.