All turtle photos by Vince Ready, Lasting Light Photography.
Sometimes a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. Last week, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife—in partnership with Friends and the Oregon Zoo—released a group of 16 young western pond turtles into the wild at Friends' Turtle Haven preserve in southwest Washington.
Watching the young turtles swim into their new home was incredibly inspiring. The images our photographer captured that day were equally captivating—a beautiful illustration of how years of partnership building combined with careful planning can make a real difference in the struggle to rebuild pond turtle populations in the Gorge.
Resident turtles, however, aren't the only new things here at the Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust.
This August, after years of careful preparation, Friends' land trust was awarded its inaugural accreditation by the Land Trust Alliance. Friends now will join over 435 other accredited land trusts operating around the United States. And much like our work to build better habitat for western pond turtles in the Gorge, Friends' recent accreditation is an important investment in the future that took years in the making.
Launched in 2006, the Land Trust Alliance accreditation process evaluates a land trust’s commitment to sound finances, ethical conduct, responsible governance, and lasting stewardship. The impact it has had on the land trust community has been remarkable.
With the launch of the Alliance's accreditation program, land trusts across the country, including Friends, started to delve into difficult—but critical—conversations. We talked honestly about the resources it takes to own and manage property in perpetuity. We talked about financial controls and donor transparency. But most importantly, we talked about the tremendous level of public trust and responsibility placed on our organizations as landowners and community members.
Across the country, land trusts acknowledged that we needed to do better, and that accreditation represented the gold standard that we should aspire to. Land trusts everywhere had work to do.
By the time Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust formally acquired its first properties in 2009, there were only a handful of accredited land trusts around the country. Like most land trusts, those early years were scrappy, and real estate closings were the height of success. But from the start, Friends knew they were building towards that gold standard.
Like a determined turtle, Friends slowly and deliberately put the foundational aspects needed for accreditation in place. A professional land stewardship program was launched. Critical organizational policies were passed. Systems were developed to improve accountability, transparency, and recordkeeping.
By the time I joined Friends in February of 2018, my predecessor, Kate McBride, along with many determined staff and board members had guided the organization well into the application process. That gave me tremendous confidence.
In over two decades working with land trusts, I've seen firsthand how accredited land trusts can accomplish more and grow community trust. I've seen how accredited land trusts can take on even larger leadership roles with an increased ability to bring key stakeholders together. And as I look ahead, I see a number of exciting possibilities for Friends' land trust to raise the bar even higher.
To protect the turtles and limit human impacts on the preserve, we kept the initial turtle release last week intentionally small. A couple of invited photographers and journalists, however, joined us to help capture the release and share the experience with the public. And it was a thrill to see a short underwater video online of a new resident pond turtle finding its way in its new home.
The turtle release, much like our recent accreditation, is the result of years of hard work. Though I have the honor of sharing this news, I am humbled by the efforts of our board members, staff, partners, volunteers, and donors to make these accomplishments happen.
Our recent accreditation and the introduction of western pond turtles to our preserve is a tribute to Friends' efforts over the past 14 years. But it's also an important next step and investment in our future work to ensure the wonders of the Gorge are protected and preserved for generations to come.
Additional photo of the view of The Dalles from the Land Trust's Mt. Ulka preserve: Peter Cornelison