Land Trusts as a Sign of American Vitality growth of the private land trust movement in the United States has often been cited as a premier example of Alexis de Tocqueville’s insight regarding the American genius for forming voluntary associations to achieve common goals, avoiding both the perils of hyper-individualism and an intrusive government.  When done properly, these trusts or conservancies typify the best of what is sometimes called “free market” environmentalism.

Land trusts engage in entirely free-market transactions with willing landowners who are able to sell or donate the development rights on all or part of their land in return for compensation or favorable tax treatment.  They grant a conservation easement to the land trust which is responsible for protecting the easement for generations to come.

Such easements can be for purposes of soil and water conservation, aesthetics, wildlife corridors or preservation of rural and agricultural life-or all of the above.  The first land trust was established in 1891 in Massachusetts, by the landscape architect Charles Eliot, to preserve 20 acres of woodland.  By 1950 there were still only 53 such trusts in 26 states. Today, there are similar trusts or conservancies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

In 1951, The Nature Conservancy was incorporated as a nonprofit entity which, notwithstanding past controversy over some of its transactions, became the Ohio-class boomer of land trusts both nationally and internationally.  The amazing growth of this institution, warts and all, has been chronicled by Bill Birchard in his informative book,
Nature’s Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How the Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World (2005).  Birchard is a journalist who covers both management and environmental issues.  His book captures the meteoric growth and growing pains of this major institution of civil society.

The last 2005 National Land Trust Census, conducted by the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) documented the truly remarkable growth of these nonprofit institutions between 2000 and 2005 and their paramount role in America’s conservation movement.

That Census, released back in November 30, 2006, revealed amazing growth in this private-sector movement.  Total acres conserved by local, state, and national trusts doubled to 37 million acres over those five years.  According to LTA this was an area 16 ½ times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Moreover, the number of land trusts grew to 1,667, a 32 percent increase over the same period.

At the end of 2011, LTA released its new 2010 National Land Trust Census for the period from 2005 to 2010, which covers conservation work right through the depths of the Great Recession of 2008. Incredibly, the new data indicate that private land trusts protected 10 million acres over those five years, totaling 47 million acres-an area the size of Washington state.  Wendy Koch of USA Today notes that this is a jump of 27 percent since 2005.

The new Census shows that, while the number of land trusts has stabilized, the number of active volunteers increased by 70 percent since 2005.

The land trust movement is not just buying land.  It is also paying attention to monitoring its investment given its legal, fiduciary and tax obligations in terms of ongoing stewardship.  So it is encouraging that between 2005 and 2010 trusts more than doubled the amount of funding they have dedicated to monitoring, stewardship and legal defense.  This was backed up by almost a tripling of their operating endowments.

This writer is privileged to serve on the board of the Potomac Conservancy which operates in targeted areas in Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia with 12,200 acres now under easements.  It has established a Stewardship Endowment just for these purposes. Conservation requires dedication and long time horizons which, in turn, require raising additional private support and contributions.

The strength of the conservancy movement, even amidst these hard economic times, is edifying both as an indication of the commitment of many Americans to stewardship and of the health of the nation’s civil society, private institutions and philanthropic spirit.

Back in 1835 Tocqueville observed that “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

May it ever be so.