There is nothing quite like being in nature.

That’s why Joan Corley, president of the Land Conservancy of Ridgefield (LCR), enjoys her job so much — it allows her to walk in the woods whenever she wants.

And there’s a lot of it — 710 acres to be exact.

“When I go back into the woods, it’s so quiet, and you can see deer and all sorts of birds,” she told The Press. “It’s a grounding, heartwarming experience, because you’re really just in the middle of nature.”

With the LCR turning 50 this year, board members have been celebrating recent accomplishments, including the organization gaining accreditation in March.

The Land Conservancy preserves 710 acres of Ridgefield’s open space — around 26% of the town’s land. A majority of it came from land donations — 540 acres — while 170 acres are part of conservation easements.

Douglas Martin, vice president of the LCR, said that he thinks “it all starts with people who really believe in trying to keep Ridgefield as a town in the country.

“It starts with the heart, and people really having a commitment to keeping space open,” he said. “We have a number of individuals giving us land just because they want to keep it an open space, even after they’ve left Ridgefield.”

Incentives

After Congress enacted the permanent Enhanced Federal Tax Incentive for Conservation Easement Donations in 2015, people who participated in conservation easement gained significant financial incentives, Martin said.

“Some people know about us and give us land, and they take the initiative to do that,” he said. “In other cases, a developer may develop a piece of property, and in accordance to town regulations, they have to set aside a certain portion or the land or make a payment for open space.”

Passion

When Corley realized that she was a neighbor of one of the Land Conservancy properties, she knew that being a part of the LCR was something she wanted to do because it would allow her to give back to the community.

“I would like more people in the community to discover this and know about this and walk the properties like we do,” Corley said.

She shared a couple of her favorite historical stories with The Press.

“I think there was a property up by Pine Mountain that used to harbor slaves that were being transported through the Underground Railroad, and several of them ended up staying there and living there for years, which I thought was so interesting,” she said. “Some of the other histories are also very interesting. The property that my house abuts used to be a sheep farm, and when I walked the property, it was all woods now, but you could see the stone walls and you could imagine very clearly that it used to be fields for sheep to graze on.”

James Tobin, one of the LCR board directors, frequently shares the history of properties during meetings.

Tobin has been involved in the Conservancy for almost a decade.

“I grew up here in Ridgefield, and both my parents grew up here, and we’ve always been involved in the outdoors. Back then, there were a lot more woods than there were now, and that’s how I got involved in trying to protect and preserve these woods,” he said. “It’s wonderful to get out in nature and see different animals and bird and wildflowers and trees. Anyone I’ve ever been out in the woods with just marvels at the beauty of it.”

Board Director Michael Carpenter agreed.

“One of the most fulfilling parts of the job is knowing that preserving this land with the rest of the board is good for the community, good for the environment, and good for mankind,” he said. “Everyone on the board takes this seriously and shares a passion for the same goal of preserving this natural beauty.”

Over the years

When Martin joined the Land Conservancy in 2004, it was a very different organization.

“It was an organization that flew largely under the radar,” he said. “The Land Conservancy wasn’t that well known, and it usually reacted to things that happened to the land it had acquires, so it was more quiet and defensive organization.”

Martin became the president in 2008, and the LCR started to shift its focus toward active stewardship.

“We had around a hundred properties in our portfolio, and each one of the board members agreed to walk the properties that we’ve owned, and we’ve done that every year since,” he said. “We had a couple of goals: First, to make sure that we were taking care of the property that was given to us over the past years. We owed to it to the people who gave us the land to keep it in a natural state, and to reassure people that were considering donating,” he said. “And the second was to try to get more land in the open space category.”

Preservation

The Land Conservancy aims to preserve its land according to the donor’s wishes.

Using aerial photos, parcel maps, and taking observations, the Land Conservancy found over thirty encroachments on its properties, ranging from people mowing the property and cutting down trees to burying propane tanks.

“It took us around seven years of working through these encroachments, and for the most part, once you alerted someone of an encroachment on their property, it was cared for in a friendly manner without attorneys,” Carpenter said.

“I think recently, we have taken great strides to become more visible … We’re trying to become more visible to the town and promote ourselves better. We’ve made an effort to become somewhat more aligned to the Ridgefield Conservation Commission. We’ve sought out more property, tried to seek more conservation easements and increase the land we’re protecting.”

Looking forward

The all-volunteer organization gives a lot of time to the LCR’s goals because the members love the town.

“There’s nobody paid on the Board, and we have a small budget, but we have done a lot,” Corley said.

Martin reflected on the organization’s future plans.

“We’d like to set our sights on a couple of areas,” he said. “Fund-raising is certainly one of them, and making an even more intensive effort of finding and contacting property owners that have large tracts of land who may be interested in donating land or participating in land easement.”

Carpenter agreed, noting that a possible way to accomplish these goals would be to add more people to the organization.

“We would like to recruit more directors — people who could help with the workload and help reach out further into the community,” he said. “And, at some point, our dream would be to do well enough to create a staff, perhaps even a paid staff, that could help us do a better and more efficient job and react more quickly to needs, such as invasive plant removal.”

Carpenter, who has lived in Ridgefield his whole life, said the town has always been close to his heart.

“I just love the town; I think it embodies New England charm,” he said. “And what better thing to do than to preserve those aspects of it that are really wonderful? The trees, the fields, the meadows, the streams, and the animals that live there — the town’s natural beauty is wonderful.”