SHERIDAN — The Sheridan Community Land Trust has come a long way since its establishment in 2006. Now, as its executive director of eight years prepares to leave, SCLT officials reflect on project highlights and discuss the future of the land trust.
“It’s bittersweet,” SCLT Executive Director Colin Betzler said about leaving, adding that he’s had a great staff, board and community to work with. He later said, “I never would have imagined some of the things that have happened in the… eight years that have positioned the land trust to be able to continue to stretch looking forward.”
Betzler said he’s leaving to volunteer part-time for Bought Beautifully — a shop owned by his wife, Emily, that brings together Christian ministry focused, ethically-conscious vendors from across the globe while he works on other side projects.
SCLT Board Chair Mike Evers said Betzler will have a gradual transition out of the position while the nonprofit finds the candidate that fits best.
“One of the things that we’re gonna miss about Colin is that he really has a vision for those types of projects that are impactful and really speak to our mission,” Evers said.
The land trust was originally established by Sheridan County Commissioner Terry Cram, then-Sheridan Mayor Dave Kinskey and consultant Brian Kuehl, as a response to community assessments that identified issues and opportunities.
Betzler said from this, three main mission focuses were formed: conservation, historic preservation and non-motorized recreation.
“As far as where we are today on that mission,” Betzler said, “we’re charging ahead.”
Betzler said the land trust is trucking along with about nine conservation easements that amount to about 3,000 acres of land. He said while they’ve been lucky to have some projects “fall in their lap,” part of the land trust’s success is years of developing partnerships and relationships.
“A lot of (projects) wouldn’t be getting done without partners,” Betzler said, adding that Sheridan’s a community where different entities get along. “But I think we’ve been able to just deepen those relationships with different partners to get beyond just getting along.”
SCLT accepted Little Goose Creek near Volunteers of American Northern Rockies as its first conservation easement in September 2007. The project aims to preserve wildlife habitat, floodplain and open space. Other conservation easements include the Buyok Ranch in 2010, McMeans Tongue River in 2013 and the Legacy Land and Cattle in June 2015.
Evers said higher profile projects tend to be recreational projects, like Soldier Ridge and Red Grade trails. Betzler said this is because most conservation easements don’t always come with the public access benefit.
“Soldier Ridge is a good one for us because it’s so tangible…boots on the ground, demonstrates what we’re doing and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Evers said. “I’m really proud of that one.”
Betzler said Soldier Ridge relied on volunteers during the Trail Trudge; an event where volunteers got lunch at Sheridan Memorial Hospital and then were transported via trolley to the trailhead where they walked and “trudged in” where the trail is.
He said the trailhead was a bid project but otherwise it was a very cost-conscious project. In contrast, Betzler said, their approach to the Red Grade Trail System includes a professional trail design and construction methodology. He said eventually the organization would like to improve Soldier Ridge with similar trail standards.
Betzler said they have about four projects underway that haven’t been talked about broadly, but that speak to the scope of SCLT’s mission. He said he hopes they’ll be in a position to talk about the projects closer to the summer.
While Betzler said there are land trusts across the state that have a similar conservation focus, what sets Sheridan’s apart is its additional focus on preservation.
He said the land trust wanted to figure out what they could do to preserve history without overlapping or duplicating efforts from the many other entities in the area with similar goals. Now, SCLT is one of the only entities that can hold historic preservation easements.
SCLT completed an interpretation project that explores the rich history of the coal mining communities called the Black Diamond Byway, and has a preservation easement on the Sheridan Inn and the Doc Huson home in Clearmont.
Betzler said the land trust will continue to look for more preservation opportunities but relies on property owners who are interested in upholding the history on their landscape.
Overall, Evers said SCLT is continuing to gain momentum, which can be seen in its donations and supporting membership.
Betzler said SCLT started with no annual supporting members and this last fiscal year had about 270.
“And those 270 people last year gave an enormous amount of money,” Betzler said, calling the year a bit of an anomaly.
According to the SCLT annual report, its total revenue for fiscal year 2015-2016 was $2,319,855. Of that, more than $2 million came from individual contributions, $65,345 came from investments, events and other income and $48,785 came from foundations and grants.
Betzler said SCLT still receives 1 cent funding from the city and county, but, just as it has across the board, funding has been reduced. He said where historically they received about $45,000 from the fund, they now receive about $23,000.
“But to see where we’ve come in 10 years, I think it’s remarkable,” Betzler said. “And again that’s a credit to the community and their faith in the work that we’re doing.”
Evers said funding will always be a challenge, just as it is for other entities. Now, he just wants to focus on keeping the momentum they’ve gained in the past 10 years.
“I think SCLT is a success story,” Betzler said. “…I think that the community is hungry to support the types of projects that we’re doing, and as a result they’ve responded really well and have sort of claimed that…they’ve got their own local land trust and they want it to be around for the future.”