Nisqually Land Trust, whose conservation work in Pierce County has included areas near Eatonville, has received a bequest of $270,000 from the estate of the late Jane Willits, sister of Olympia-based conservation leader and estate trustee Ward Willits.
Capitol Land Trust received a gift in the same amount, the groups announced Feb. 11.
The bequests are among the largest private gifts either organization has ever received. The Nisqually group was established in 1989 to acquire and manage natural land to permanently protect ater, wildlife, natural areas and scenic vistas of the Nisqually River watershed. To date, it has conserved and restored more than 3,500 acres in the watershed.
The Willits family has a longstanding commitment to protecting wildlife habitat in western Washington and a history of strong support for both land trusts.
Joe Kane, executive director of Nisqually Land Trust, discussed the Willits gift and plans for it with The Dispatch:
Dispatch: Did Jane Willits or her family or associates have some connection with your organization, or is there some other reason she singled you out?
The connection was through Ward Willits, who was an advisor to his sister, Jane, and is a trustee of her estate.
Dispatch: What are some of the conservation activities of Ward Willits?
Ward and his wife, Rita, live in west Olympia and have long been supporters of both Capitol Land Trust and Nisqually Land Trust. In fact, Ward served for a time on the Capitol Land Trust board. Ward’s brother, John, is also an estate trustee and is active with the North Olympic Land Trust, in Port Angeles, which also received a bequest from the Jane Willits estate. The family as a whole just has an extraordinary vision of conservation at the local level, and a commitment to back that vision.
Ward’s message to me, when he presented us with the check, were that he’s watched the Nisqually Land Trust emerge not just as a leader in the watershed but as a regional leader, and that the family was impressed not only by our conservation work but by our fiduciary rigor.
Dispatch: Will the money be earmarked for anything in particular by Nisqually Land Trust?
We’ll put most of the funds into a kind of internal endowment, in part to help us meet the standard for long-term fiduciary responsibility required of us for accreditation by the Land Trust Alliance, the national umbrella organization for land trusts.
We are on track for accreditation this year. It’s been a two-year process. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s 1,700 land trusts have received accreditation. It’s a high standard, and this bequest helps us meet it by helping to assure that we can cover the long-term costs of caring for the properties we have acquired.
We will also use some of the bequest funds as a sort of venture capital to help us explore innovative strategies for long-term support of our lands – specifically, we are exploring entry into the carbon-credit market as a way of meeting our stewardship costs. The market holds a very high likelihood of becoming a steady source of funding for us, but the upfront costs to enter it are quite high. The bequest gives us the means of bankrolling ourselves for the carbon project and being able to wait for the returns.
Our overall goal is to grow the bequest so that the corpus remains intact while generating revenue to meet operational needs. By definition, we are here in perpetuity, and we have a responsibility to build funding to match.