Published: Aug 13, 2010 8:02 AM EDT
Updated: Aug 14, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

ROYALTON, Vt. (AP) — For $275, you can bid to adopt a purebred ram from Fat Rooster Farm and help its owners for a day during lambing season.

For $1,375, you can bid on helping create habitat for the chestnut-sided warbler and spend a day birdwatching with an expert at Fred Pond.

If quaint New England is your thing, how about ponying up $13,750 to help preserve the Howe Covered Bridge, a 19th-century structure in Tunbridge? They'll put up a plaque with your name on it if you do.

This is no ordinary sale: A Vermont conservation group is holding a "landscape auction" this weekend in which private landowners sell working landscape elements from the White River watershed in hopes of raising money, promoting sustainability and giving city folks a dose of country living.

The auction is a way of promoting conservation by putting donors in the habitat they're being asked to help preserve. Conservation advocates call it a welcome new fundraising tack at a time when many donors have curtailed their contributions because of the economic downturn.

"Times are tough and traditional funding to protect landscape elements such as clean water, scenic vistas and wildlife habitat is more limited than ever," said ecologist Lisa Smith, president of the Oregon-based Natural Areas Association. "To engage individual contributions in the protection of the very elements that they hold dear seems a very good step in the direction of long-term protection efforts."

The sponsor of the event, the community-based nonprofit White River Partnership, got the idea from Europe, where about two dozen have been held over the last three years.

"It's two-fold," said Daan Wensing, director of landscape auctions for Triple E, a Dutch company that came up with the concept. "If you can raise additional money for private landowners to do what they're good at, that's great. Connecting people to the landscape promotes sustainability. It's not a one-off, far-away project."

Wensing, who is serving as a consulting on the Vermont auction, says it's the first of its kind in the United States.

Organizers hope to raise $100,000 or more — 10 percent of which will go to the White River Partnership, the rest to the landowners to help them protect or improve their offerings, which include creation of songbird-nesting habitats, securing of public recreation access corridors and fencing cattle out of streams.

The priciest item, helping Carl Russell and his team of draft horses at Earthwise Farm & Forest by working to restore 30 acres of historic pasture, is going for a minimum bid of $19,800.

On Saturday, bidders will gather at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center to meet the farmers and landowners before getting down to business with the live auction, conducted by Vermont comedian Rusty Deweese. In all, about 50 items are up for bid.

Mary Russ, executive director of the White River Partnership, said the success of the event will determine whether it is repeated.

"We want to see if it can work, then modify it in the future to see if it can be a source of real income for private landowners," Russ said.

"It's a great way to connect people with the landscape, in an intimate type of way," said Jenn Megyesi, 47, who runs the 20-acre Fat Rooster Farm, a fruit and vegetable farm in Royalton with about 100 sheep, with her husband and 10-year-old son. "It's much more intimate than sending money in an envelope."