By Beth Conover, Senior Vice President for Natural Resources and Community Development, Gates Family Foundation

Gates Family Foundation, a member of TFN’s Intermountain West Funder Network, has teamed up with Colorado’s land trust leaders to launch the Conservation Futures Project. Learn what inspired the project, what it hopes to achieve and why this issue is of vital importance.

As part of its core mission to protect quality of life for future generations of Coloradans, the Gates Family Foundation has invested for decades in the conservation of both public and private land. The foundation’s work helps protect open lands that afford residents and visitors with majestic views, world-class outdoor recreation, and robust working farms and ranches – all of which provide huge economic benefits to the state and contribute to residents’ shared identity as Coloradans.

In communities across the nation, more than 1,000 land trusts serve as vital partners in the conservation and stewardship of open lands. These nonprofit organizations work with local landowners who wish to voluntarily restrict development of their private lands, in order to protect iconic vistas, preserve working farms and ranches, and safeguard waterways and ecosystems. In return, land trusts guarantee to protect and steward the open space under their watch – in perpetuity. In Colorado, nonprofit land trusts are responsible for the stewardship of nearly 80% of the 2.2 million acres of private land conserved statewide. Throughout the national Land Trust Alliance’s 14-state Western region, land trusts have protected over 9 million acres.

Clearly, ensuring the capacity, vibrancy, and sustainability of land trusts is of vital importance to the future of conservation nationwide and in Colorado. Since the 1980s, the Gates Family Foundation has supported land conservation by helping to build the capacity of the field, spur innovations in conservation law, provide leadership training, expand community engagement, and encourage long-term financial planning and stewardship. The people of Colorado are also deeply supportive of land conservation, through state tax credits as well as grants provided by Great Outdoors Colorado – created by voters in 1992 and funded by Colorado Lottery proceeds. Since GOCO’s inception, the Gates Family Foundation has been Colorado’s largest private match source for GOCO-funded land conservation, statewide.

Yet land trusts in Colorado – and nationwide – are facing a host of common challenges ahead. These charitable organizations have operated for decades with land and conservation easement acquisition as a key part of their business model, yet as more of their operating costs shift toward stewardship of those lands, many land trusts are exploring new ways of doing business, fundraising, and building partnerships. Long-term sustainability is of primary importance, as land trusts seek to ensure their endowments are well-positioned for land stewardship in perpetuity, and resilient enough to handle risks and change. A host of other issues – including abandoned or neglected easements, threats to funding sources, political uncertainty, and a dearth of certified conservation easement appraisers – are compounded by the fact that competition among land trusts for limited public and private dollars can make collaborative work more challenging.

With these thorny, sector-wide issues in mind, in 2017 the Gates Family Foundation worked with a number of other funders and land trust partners to convene a series of five all-day meetings. Over the course of the year, topics explored included:

  • Valuation, appraisals and tax credits;
  • Operating challenges, new service models and potential for collaborative solutions;
  • Financial sustainability and best practices for stewardship planning; and
  • Strategic communications opportunities and challenges for the Colorado land conservation community.

The open-ended, exploratory meetings resulted in more than just discussion. Propelled on by the urgency of various issues, tangible outcomes of the convening series included:

  • A Colorado State University study, which found that each dollar invested by the state for land conservation produced economic benefits of between $4 and $12 for Coloradans;
  • Regional meetings that allowed local land trusts to explore opportunities for collaboration around business models and programming;
  • A beta version of a financial sustainability calculator tool and best practices for estimating the optimal size and overall health of stewardship endowments; and
  • Public policy ideas to address current bottlenecks with land appraisals and tax credit decisions.

A common thread running through all of these issues and solutions was a recognition of the need for more collaborative capacity and leadership at the statewide level. Simultaneous to the Gates-hosted discussions, board members from the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts (CCLT) were embarking upon their own strategic planning process aimed at increasing the organization’s member engagement and financial sustainability.

As a result, the core group of partners involved in Gates’ 2017 series – including the CCLT board chair and vice chair, and other board members – decided to launch the Conservation Futures Project, a time-bound initiative to unite the state’s land trust community around a common purpose:

  • To envision and launch a new, statewide coalition that has the vision, capacity and structure to most effectively guide and support Colorado’s land conservation community as it evolves to meet current and future challenges.
  • To develop and advance tools for navigating land trusts’ common path forward – such as a stewardship endowment calculator, a modernized valuation model for conservation easements, staff and board training resources, and collaborative models to support local land trusts.

Throughout 2018, the Conservation Futures Project – which is made possible with financial support from Gates, GOCO, and others – will bring diverse funders and land conservation interests to the table to identify a path forward. So far, the project has:

  • Established a steering committee with a mandate from the CCLT board to shepherd the process toward developing a new coalition;
  • Conducted national research to identify a range of statewide organizations whose models are most effective in serving their constituents and advancing common conservation goals.
  • Launched a strategic communications effort – including a project website, newsletter, and outreach plan – to ensure that land trust leaders and conservation advocates throughout the state remain informed and engaged throughout the project.


In the coming months, the Conservation Futures Project will conduct a survey of Colorado’s land conservation community, convene a statewide summit in May, and host regional conversations over the summer. The process will culminate in the development a business plan for a re-imagined, resilient, relevant statewide coalition prepared to lead Colorado’s land conservation community into the future.


If you are interested in learning more about this work, please contact Beth Conover at

About the Author

Beth Conover, Senior Vice President – Natural Resources, Rural Communities and Urbanism, Gates Family Foundation.  Beth has worked for more than 25 years at the intersection of environmental protection and economic development. She is a senior vice president with the foundation, leading its initiated grant making for natural resources, rural communities and smarter, greener, healthier urbanism. She also chairs the steering commitee for TFN’s Intermountain West Funder Network.

About the Intermountain West Funder Network

The Intermountain West Funder Network is a unique opportunity for funders to promote meaningful engagement, strengthen communities, and build philanthropic connections that will leverage funding and support for one of the nation’s most iconic and fastest-growing regions.

Our goal is to create a network of funders who can work alongside each other, as well as with their partners in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors, to address local and regional growth and development issues through meaningful community engagement and innovative solutions in the Intermountain West.