Desert Foothills Land Trust

Jewel of the Creek Preserve, located along the northern edge of Cave Creek. Desert Foothills Land Trust owns this preserve and says this is its most popular for hiking.

It’s no question that the pandemic has presented many people, businesses and organizations with major setbacks. The financial struggle was evident for Desert Foothills Land Trust, a Cave Creek-based nonprofit that relies solely on donations. 

Desert Foothills Land Trust has a mission of preserving land and connecting people to the outdoors and holds some of its biggest fundraising events in March, April and May. 

However, when COVID-19 started running its course in the spring, it left the land trust’s staff “scratching their heads,” wondering how to raise money, said Vicki Preston, executive director of Desert Foothills Land Trust.

“We are 100% funded by our donors,” Preston said. “So, it really makes the support of our community critical for us.”

However, despite all the challenges, Desert Foothills Land Trust still raised enough donations to continue its mission of preserving and protecting the North Valley’s desert land.

“I was pretty surprised,” Preston said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but we are on track as we would normally be without COVID. We’re not down, which is a huge, huge sigh of relief for us.”

“We get to not only survive but thrive,” she said. “It’s amazing that our community supports us so well. We’re really thankful.”

Land trusts are nonprofit organizations that have a mission of actively working to conserve land by undertaking and assisting in land conservation easement acquisition. 

Community leaders formed Desert Foothills Land Trust in 1991 with the intention of protecting the North Valley’s sensitive landscape and the animals, plants, water and land resources as well as the archaeological and historic sites that lie within it. In 2010, it was accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, its website states.

The biggest push for donations comes at the end of the year, Preston said, adding that she’s in the midst of processing donations and sending thank-you letters. 

“We’re really lucky here in our community,” she said. “We have so many nonprofits in our community, but there are so many generous people.”

Desert Foothills Land Trust has been working to partner with many of the local nonprofits to “show to our community that we’re not in competition; we’re here to support one another,” Preston said. 

The land trust recently collaborated with the Cave Creek Museum, she said, adding that she’d like to see the land trust work with Foothills Food Bank and Foothills Caring Corps in the future as well. 

Desert Foothills Land Trust was an all-volunteer organization in its inception. It now consists of three full-time professionals and one part-time professional, according to its website. 

It also has a board of directors made up of 10 volunteer members, including Carefree’s Vice Mayor John Crane, as well as dozens of other volunteers who serve the organization.

Preston has worked with the land trust for nine years. She started as the conservation director and three to four years later transitioned into her role as the executive director, she said. 

Preston still holds her duties as the conservation director because she “couldn’t give up the land. That’s my favorite part,” she said.

Even though 2020 was tough to navigate financially, “we actually had a really great year as far as our mission,” Preston said. 

“We were able to add 235 additional acres to our ownership, which is huge for us,” she explained.

Since it was formed, Desert Foothills Land Trust has protected nearly 750 acres on 25 preserves, Preston said, explaining that “adding 235 acres in one year, especially in 2020, was a really, really big thing.” 

Desert Foothills Land Trust protects and stewards land in the desert foothills of the North Valley, including Cave Creek, Carefree, North Scottsdale, North Phoenix, New River, Desert Hills and Anthem, also extending its conservation interest to the Tonto National Forest.

Many preserves Desert Foothills Land Trust protects are open to the public for recreation; however, others are privately owned and protected by a conservation easement, the website states. This means that access to these preserves is only by permission of the landowner and the land trust. 

Connecting people with nature is another part of Desert Foothills Land Trust’s mission, which was also negatively impacted by COVID-19, Preston said. 

Normally, the land trust offers guided hikes through its preserved desert land; however, “that’s kind of out the door right now,” Preston said. She added, however, that the land trust hopes to start offering the guided hikes with masks and social distancing in February. 

Desert Foothills Land Trust adapted to the restrictions of the pandemic by starting a virtual learning program on its website. “It’s been new for us, but it seems to be working out,” Preston said. 

The organization is in the beginning process of planning a number of virtual fundraising events for 2021, she said. 

The trust is considering partnering with a local business to offer a “virtual wine tasting,” Preston said. People would purchase tickets and receive bottles of wine hand-delivered to them so they can participate in the virtual event, she explained.

Another fundraising event that may be on the horizon is “drive-in stargazing,” which will be held on one of the land trust’s preserves, she said, adding that people will be instructed to social distance and stay in their cars. 

These events will likely happen in the spring, Preston said. 

Before the pandemic, the organization implemented a program called “Prescription for Nature,” which encourages a healthy lifestyle with outdoor exercise. 

“We’re working with some of the local health care providers right here in our community and actually having them work with their patients and actually write them a prescription to get out on a trail and use nature as a way to heal,” Preston said.

Exercising outdoors can reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stress, obesity, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder as well as osteoporosis and arthritis, according to the land trust’s website. 

The Prescription for Nature program, which was in its pilot phase, had different trails designated for different levels of difficulty and accessibility to help patients, as well as families, find paths that best suit their needs and physical abilities, the website states. 

“Of course, we get it finally ready to go and up and running and then COVID hit,” she said.

Preston mentioned that her next project is changing the direction of the Prescription for Nature program to be specifically designed for health care workers for the time being so they can get their fill of nature during such a stressful time.

“Nature is really a healing tool, which we saw when everybody was forced into lockdown,” Preston said. 

The sheer number of people heading out to the land trust’s preserves became a safety issue, she said, adding that “we ended up having to, unfortunately, close our most popular preserves.”

However, the “silver lining” of the situation is that COVID-19 forced people to find a renewed sense of nature’s importance, Preston said.

“That’s really encouraging to us,” she said, explaining how the new generation often spends a lot of time on a screen and many don’t take the time to enjoy the outdoors. 

“Our concern was who are the new stewards going to be?” she said. Even though the properties are forever protected, “We need the next generation to be there to take care of them as well,” Preston said.

It’s important for people to find their own connection to nature, she said. There may be health conditions that prevent people from being fully able to hike and explore, but there are still many ways to experience the desert, she added.

Even if it’s just looking out the window, it’s vital for people to appreciate and understand “how truly lucky we are,” Preston said.

This is what makes the North Valley so “great,” she said, explaining how many people who live here understand the vast beauty the desert holds. Whether someone is a hiker, mountain biker or horseback rider, “there’s still this innate love for nature here because we’re just so blessed to be in this unique habitat.”

“This is the only Sonoran Desert,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it in the entire world. These views are what everybody really appreciates the most.”

However, sometimes in Arizona, “we kind of take it for granted,” she said.

State land and privately held land is quickly turning from open space to development, Preston explained, mentioning how experts project that the population will continue to grow exponentially. 

“It’s about being smart about where we grow,” Preston said.

 “There are certain places that are just too special to build on. We need to make sure that we can stay ahead of the bulldozers and make sure that we protect the right things and develop the right areas.

“It’s a balancing act and it can be done, and we’re going to continue to keep working on that and making sure that it’s done right.”