Policy Review Banner

Steward Little

Friday, September 1, 1995

The public places great faith in national conservation groups to preserve ecologically valuable land. Uncritical news coverage and slick fundraising campaigns have something to do with this. But nature-lovers and property owners should be aware that local community-based land trusts are often better stewards of land and more interested in managing land for the enjoyment of the local populace. Unfortunately, many citizens involved in land preservation are unaware of the distinctions.

I learned this lesson through bitter experience. My dad once owned 74 acres in Westport, Connecticut. In 1970, when he was 84, he asked me to help him decide how to preserve the land for the enjoyment and education of his neighbors. He wanted the Christmas trees he'd planted sold to help pay for planting native hardwood, shrubs, and grasses. He wanted trails with plant life identified and education programs for kids. Eventually he chose the Fairfield Chapter of the Connecticut Audubon Society (not affiliated with National Audubon) to carry out his vision because it agreed to do most of what he thought important.

In l990, 18 years after Dad's death, I discovered Audubon had done nothing it had agreed to. The Christmas trees were 35 feet high and covered with thick bittersweet vines that threaten to kill them. The land was overgrown and untended, and locked gates barred public access. At the Audubon office, I pointed out that densely planted spruce trees provide almost no food and nest sites for birds (except for predatory owls and hawks that eat other birds). The young staffer ignored me and nattered on about a rare hawk seen on the site recently.

Audubon's officials brazenly cited lack of funds for their failure to fulfill the contract. Yet one of the parcels was a Christmas tree farm whose profits were flowing mainly to a former Audubon employee. As far as I could see, not a penny of Audubon's share was being spent to maintain the balance of the 74 acres.

Over the years, I've learned that there are large differences between the practices of national landholding trusts like the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and National Audubon Society and those of the local trusts. There are exceptions to my generalizations, and some local and state chapters with famous brand names are not affiliated with their national namesakes, but may operate as most of the nationals do. The national environmental organizations and their affiliates tend to:

· Follow the thinking of John Muir, a talented nature writer and a founder of the Sierra Club. Muir believed wilderness is best left alone because man can only degrade it. The Muir doctrine, however, has no basis in science. The nationals' philosophy of land management amounts to nonmanagement. And this nonmanagement saves millions of dollars that they can devote to fundraising, salaries, perks, etc.; as the inspector general of the Interior Department points out, the nationals are businesses.

  • Limit public access by cutting few trails, allowing ground vegetation to become impenetrable, preserving parcels of land that are bounded entirely by private property, and declaring land off-limits under the Endangered Species Act and other federal legislation.
  • Lobby the federal government to manage land their way and to lock away ever more land under the Endangered Species Act, wetlands regulations, and similar laws. Many professional foresters think that such promotion of the Muir philosophy of land management results in more disastrous fires in national parks, like the notorious Yellowstone fire in 1989.
  • Engage in the highly profitable business of selling land to the federal government, particularly to various agencies within the Department of the Interior (see sidebar).

Local land trusts, with some exceptions, tend to:

  • Use what science-based management they can afford.
  • Allow public access and seek multiple uses for preserved property, including recreation, preservation, education, and in some cases sensible, sustainable logging.
  • Seek members among their local communities.

For those with experience of wildlife and land, the differences in management philosophy are not abstract. A few vignettes illustrate this. I have visited eight sites owned by nationals. Three were within homeowners' associations, forbidding public access. A fourth had soil beloved by dense ground cover, ensuring no sunlight for tree seedlings. The land could remain an impenetrable wilderness for centuries until wildfire cleared the ground. A fifth, 20.3 acres, is prone to saltwater intrusion in hurricanes and off-limits to the public. An expert on the rare orchid growing there suggested that since each plant produces 10,000-plus seeds, real protection of the species lies in trying to grow it elsewhere. Maybe Congress needs to ask that question next time it's lobbied to lock away land for an endangered something.

In northeast Connecticut, by contrast, there's a young local trust busily acquiring land. Each new tract is surveyed by state or private forestry professionals. The resulting plans are masterpieces of knowledgeable, applied ecological sciences. Black birches, a disease-prone species there, are to be killed by girdling their trunks, making room for heartier stock. "Patch cuts" (small areas where trees are cleared for the planting of shrubs and grasses) are made to provide food for small mammals and to protect fledgling birds from hawks. This trust also organizes demonstrations for local landowners of some of the techniques they can apply on their land.

An established trust in northwest Connecticut owns the most beautiful stand of ancient, giant hemlocks in New England. These great-grandfathers are being attacked by the wooly adelgid, an insect native to Asia that betrays its presence only when the needles start to fall off the trees. The president of the trust, a retired engineer who built petroleum plants throughout the world, has raised funds to send a scientist to Japan, where knowledge about the adelgid and its natural predators is well advanced. Many years ago, this trust had a healthy stand of red pine on ten acres. A disease, then untreatable, was devastating red pine throughout the area. The trustees decided to keep the organism from multiplying and attacking red pines elsewhere. So they clear-cut the stand and used the proceeds to improve their properties.

Many things have changed since my father donated his land to the Connecticut Audubon Society. Owners have smartened up and few donors now enter into donation contracts without a strong recission clause. These legal arrangements generally recite the donor's expectations concerning the management of the gifted land: whether to allow the harvesting of mature timber, maintain trails, enforce limitations on public access, and so on.

Landowners are increasingly adept at protecting the environmental integrity of their land, as well as their plans for it, by selling conservation easements to land trusts. Such easements, which last in perpetuity, essentially foreclose any chance that the owners' wishes will not be respected. One can sell an easement, for example, requiring that the land be managed a certain way and cannot be sold for development. There's been an explosion in the variety of easement terms; with patience, a landowner may find an organization that buys easements allowing the harvesting of mature timber or providing expert management for wildlife and plants. If the transfer is to take place after the donor's death, the authority to enforce the recission power is frequently conveyed to a third party known as the enforcer, whose rights, responsibilities, and qualifications can be written into the contract.

Looking to the Future

The last 15 years or so have witnessed an explosion in the number of small, community-based local trusts. According to the Land Trust Alliance, based in Washington, D.C., as of 1994 there were 1,100 land trusts with approximately 900,000 active members. The number of local trusts is now growing at about one per week. They own about 540,000 acres outright, have conveyed nearly 1 million acres to state and municipal parks, and have acquired various kinds of conservation easements on about 2.5 million acres.

I would like to imagine a future in which the practices of national landholding organizations converge with those of local trusts for the betterment of citizens and communities. Change is already occurring among the nationals. In most Northeastern and Western states, state and county forestry officials are products of excellent forestry schools. They understand the science-based management of wild land and wildlife. They advise the local trusts and, occasionally, the local affiliates of the nationals.

The 1991 Farm Bill included funding for a "Forestry Stewardship Program" that strengthens the advisory system local trusts and private owners depend on. Here and there, some local affiliates of the nationals are beginning to use science to manage their land. In most areas, relations between the locals and the nationals are cordial and the practices introduced by state and private foresters are being observed by the young idealists who work for national affiliates. In sum, science is once again beginning to overcome what has increasingly seemed a dogma.