The History of the New Canaan Land Trust
The New Canaan Land Conservation Trust was founded on September 12, 1967 by Jack Gunther, Elise Lapham, and Mary-Lib Katzenbach to facilitate the preservation of open space in New Canaan. By forming a land trust, these pioneering conservationists hoped to preserve parcels of land that the Town was was not prepared to acquire, or was not interested in conserving. Placing these properties in a trust meant that they could act quickly and nimbly, and would ensure that the land was protected in perpetuity.
In the first 10 years of NCLT’s operation, over 130 acres were donated by members of the New Canaan community. Residents understood the benefits of saving land, often carving off a portion of their estates and donating it to the Land Trust. Many of our flagship preserves, including Browne, Colhoun, Hannan, Livingston-Higley, and the three properties along the GreenLink Trail were donated at this time. The Land Trust continued to receive donations of properties in the subsequent years, growing to 200 acres by the mid-1990s.
After over a decade of limited activity, a new cohort of Directors joined the board in the early 2010s, with the goal of re-energizing NCLT. Led by then President, Chris Schipper, this group began seeking out new opportunities for land conservation, increasing membership and support from the community, and taking a more active approach to stewarding the land. As many land trusts had done before, NCLT transitioned from a preservationist mentality (protect the land, then leave it alone) to a modern conservationist mentality (steward the land, and provide public benefit through conservation). During this period, NCLT built trails on 6 of its largest properties and began welcoming the public to events and programs on these properties.
NCLT has continued expanding its network of protected open space, as well as increasing its profile in the New Canaan community. In 2013, NCLT took ownership of 56 acres of bird sanctuary, previously owned by the New Canaan Audubon Society. In 2016, NCLT set out on its first capital campaign to purchase the 6.4 acre Silvermine-Fowler Preserve, and celebrated the organization’s 50th year of land conservation by opening the preserve to the public in 2017. During this period, membership in the land trust grew nearly three-fold, and NCLT was able to hire its first Executive Director.
In February of 2019, NCLT earned national accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance’s Land Trust Accreditation Commission. This mark of excellence has been awarded to just over 400 of the nearly 1400 land trusts throughout the United States who consistently demonstrate an ongoing commitment to operating at the highest national standards. More than three years of preparation and documentation went into the accreditation process, and included a comprehensive third-party evaluation that validated NCLT’s sound finances, commitment to ethical and legal conduct, responsible governance and operation, and lasting stewardship of its properties.
Today, NCLT is the leading conservation organization in New Canaan, and works to engage its community in the protection and stewardship of open space. NCLT is the largest private landowner in New Canaan, owning nearly 350 acres of land, with an additional 50 acres under easements.
A video created by NCHS Students, John Frey and Bobby Carpenter, about the history of the New Canaan Land Trust, its mission to protect open space, and our work to spread a conservation ethic beyond the boundaries of our properties.