A Land Ethic 60 Years Later: Growth of the Land Trust Movement

A recent article in The American Spectator highlights the impressive accomplishments and growth of the land trust movement in the U.S. over the last 60 years. Census data collected by the national Land Trust Alliance indicates significant growth in land conservation by these private—and usually small—nonprofit land trusts since 2000. See Tocqueville Would Be Proud. There are more than 1700 land trusts in the U.S. that have conserved 37 million acres of land.

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and his other writings were highly influential to the conservation movement in the 1950s-1970s. Last week was Aldo Leopold Weekend in Wisconsin. His idea of a land ethic, a guiding principle for the actions of people and their relationship to land, evolved into some of the early visions of land trusts, now considered conservation leaders, beginning in the 1970s.

One example, Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), established itself as a conservation organization in 1970.  Through its “municipal program” (1975-77), the statewide land trust determined that conservation commissions were very important but local land trusts were also needed to perform the necessary land protection work throughout the state. “Local land trusts (LLTs) can provide response flexibility, confidentiality and credibility that is often lacking on the part of town government,” wrote Earl Ireland in an early planning committee memo to the Land Trust Program.  MCHT began to list “assistance to local land trusts” as part of its services in 1978. A number of other state-wide land trusts formed using that model in other parts of the country.

Ten years ago I conducted a research project on land trust collaboration, which continues to be a topic of discussion at the Land Trust Rally, an annual training event hosted by the Land Trust Alliance. The Land Trust Alliance is a national, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that provides leadership to the local, regional and state wide land trust communities across the country, as well as some international land trusts.

While I focused much of that 2001-2004 study on Maine land trusts, I traveled to meet with land trust and conservation professionals in Wyoming, California and Maryland, and attended the Land Trust Rally to learn about land trust work nationally. I also gained first-hand knowledge by working with Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

What struck me then was the difference in how people thought about “collaboration.” I had assumed that collaboration was a good thing but learned that some people saw it as “giving up” or “giving in,” while others defined it as “working together.” In success stories about local land trusts in Maine that collaborated by merging with neighboring trusts, a regional land trust could take on larger conservation easements, raise more funds, hire more staff, update/digitize maps, etc.  The Land Trust Alliance encouraged this mode of professionalizing land trusts throughout the U.S.. In success stories about local land trusts (LLTs) that collaborated in other ways—through partnerships, shared staff or shared GIS, peer-mentoring programs or regional coalitions, LLTs maintained their local identity and protected more land using ‘whole-place’ planning or a watershed approach and the benefits of working with conservation partners.

Since then, land trusts have turned collectively to the development of state conservation easement statutes and to new challenges, such as addressing climate change. LTA conducted a 2007 survey among land trusts and found that 60% of responding land trusts were incorporating climate change into their conservation action plans and 30% were engaged in influencing climate policy. Learn more about the developments of land trusts and climate change issues on LTA’s website.

ASWM posted a list of land trusts working to protect wetlands and provided a number ofpublications relevant to land conservation work on its website. In addition, visit ASWM’sLocal Wetland Programs page and its “I am a Landowner” page for related information about local governments, local land conservation programs and general information about wetlands protection for landowners.

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