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Southern Heritage Madison Trust


The Southern Madison Heritage Trust (SMHT) was founded in 2000 and is based in Hamilton, New York. SMHT used GIS to inventory scenic and natural resources as well as to evaluate potential projects with the use of a suitability map based on their land protection criteria and mission statement. The mission of SMHT is "to conserve, for public benefit, the natural resources in and around the townships of Brookfield, Eaton, Georgetown, Hamilton, Lebanon, and Madison in Madison County, New York. These resources shall include land, water, unique habitats, scenic landscapes, recreational sites, and historic features. [We] will conserve such resources through land stewardship, public education, and support of practices and policies that advance natural resource conservation."


Following the successful completions of two land acquisition projects that had rallied citizens to form the land trust, board members of SMHT knew that they needed to focus their conservation effort on projects that best matched their mission as well as have the highest resource value. As an all-volunteer land trust, this task was going to be difficult to handle internally.  Board President Steven Tuttle was a planner and was familiar with the uses of GIS in helping with strategic land protection planning. In addition, SMHT has a good working relationship with the County Planning Department’s GIS staff for handling basic mapping needs. Board members approached consultant Ole Amundsen III, who teaches a client-based workshop at the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, about producing a Strategic Conservation Plan SMHT as part of a class project. Over the Fall of 2005, 12 graduate students form Cornell worked to produce a Strategic Land Protection Plan for the land trust.

One of the most unique and useful GIS products completed by Cornell Graduate students was a scenic resource inventory of southern Madison County. The students created seven criteria for evaluating the scenic quality of the landscape and locating scenic viewpoints. After touring the six southern Madison communities and driving over 380 miles of roads, 53 scenic viewpoints were recorded by student teams equipped with GPS units. Next, the viewpoints were loaded into a Geographic Information System (GIS). Using the Spatial Analyst extension in GIS, "viewsheds" (the areas that can be seen) from each point were created. These viewsheds were then mathematically combined using the Raster Calculator Tool to establish points of multiple overlap in scenic quality.

SMHT uses this scenic resource coverage to evaluate potential projects for their scenic quality. When a project with potential scenic value reaches SMHT, Steve Tuttle calls up the GIS Office at the Madison County Planning Department and they open the scenic resource coverage produced by Cornell and provide a report on the relative scenic ranking of the parcel. SMHT uses this report in conjunction with their other land protection criteria to evaluate the overall fit of a project with SMHT conservation goals.

Scenic quality is one of the public benefit factors that the IRS permits for justifying the deduction of a donation of an easement. While the IRS has its own criteria for defining a scenic landscape, it is very vague.  One factor that the IRS takes into account in determining if the easement is actually scenic is whether the proposed scenic view in the easement has been evaluated “with a regional or local landscape inventory made pursuant to a sufficiently rigorous review process.” A scenic resource inventory completed by a neutral outside University, using a proven methodology, adds a comforting level of security for the land trust in evaluated and holding a scenic easement.

The scenic resource inventory has also come in handy to provide some objective input into a new public controversy over a recently proposed, privately funded, 190-mile high-voltage power line with 130-foot transmission towers that will run through two towns in the SMHT service area. With the viewshed map, SMHT could show government officials and the general public some information regarding the impacts of the proposed powerline on scenic resources

Lessons Learned

GIS can be effectively used by even an all-volunteer land trust if the land trust works with partners such as county government or a university to handle the more technically complex tasks. With the increased scrutiny of easement transactions, GIS products such as a scenic resource inventory are no longer just “nice to have” but “need to have” items.

Ole M. Amundsen III, Visiting Lecturer

Department of City and Regional Planning
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853

Steven Tuttle, Board President
Southern Madison Heritage Trust
P.O. Box 117
Hamilton, NY 13346

© Land Trust GIS 2006