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Land Stewardship

By / November 6, 1990



THE sound of teeth grinding could be heard in this quarter of Oregon recently when an ultraconservative candidate for governor said the only way to protect land from questionable development was ``to take out your pocketbook and go buy all you want to preserve.'' This seemed to be an extreme view of property rights, ignoring the responsibility of government to act as steward of natural resources for future generations. But this provocative remark (aimed at ``preservationists,'' a derogatory description of environmentalists here in spotted-owl country) can be seen in a more positive light as well.

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I'm speaking of land trusts, private groups organized to save farmland, wilderness, and open spaces by buying it outright or purchasing a conservation easement to prevent certain kinds of development. It's an idea that can be embraced by those of any political persuasion, especially if they enjoy a good walk in the woods to refresh the spirit.

The oldest such group - the Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts - is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It holds 71 properties totaling 17,500 acres around the state, including Crane's Beach in Ipswich and World's End in Hingham. But with the Massachusetts economy in a tailspin, the group faces a large deficit, according to chairman Arthur D. Clarke, and needs all the help it can get.

For five years, our family (including Cider, the world's handsomest Welsh corgi) made it a weekly - sometimes daily - ritual to tramp about the 251 acres of windswept woods and marshlands at World's End. Even though the skyline of Boston still was in view, hawks and quail proliferated and foxes were occasionally spotted as well. Refreshing breezes off the Atlantic in summer, chestnuts to collect in autumn, cross-country skiing in winter - there was year-round nourishment for the soul at a mere $35 per annum. One hates to think what this historic woodland and sheep pasture would look like if the Trustees of Reservations hadn't stepped up 20 years ago. Condos perhaps, or worse yet a nuclear-power plant, which is what some had in mind.

In all, there are more than 700 land trusts around the United States protecting about 8 million acres. Like the Snohomish County Land Trust north of Seattle or the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, most are grass-roots groups formed to meet a specific concern. The largest organization is the Nature Conservancy, which operates in 15 countries and protects about 5 million acres in the US. Typical of the Nature Conservancy's work is the 35,000-acre Virginia Coastal Reserve, a sanctuary for migrating shorebirds on 13 barrier islands off the Atlantic coast.

Some lands held in trust cover hundreds of square miles, like the Animas Mountain Range in New Mexico acquired by the Nature Conservancy earlier this year and home to about 100 rare plant and animal species. Others are vest-pocket parks in urban neighborhoods. Land is acquired either from owners giving it to the trust or through purchase, using tax-deductible donations.

Humans are not an excluded species when it comes to such efforts. The American Farmland Trust helps struggling farmers resist the urge to sell out to developers, sometimes by buying the land, then leasing it back to the farm family at an attractive rate until they can repurchase it. Farmland is preserved, but with legal covenants preventing harmful agricultural methods like overgrazing in riparian areas. In return, the farmer stays on the land, gets some quick cash to cover capital and operating expenses, and also enjoys a smaller property-tax bill since the assessed value is lower because of development restrictions. Often, this can mean the difference between keeping property in the family or losing it to inheritance taxes.

Land developers can benefit as well from trust arrangements. By dedicating, say, wetlands to a trust group that will maintain and preserve it, the builder will save on taxes and also win public relations points with the community.

Land trusts are no substitute for national parks, wilderness areas, and other legitimate restrictions on resource extraction and development. But in this time of budget cutbacks and a weakening economy, it's not a bad way for those dedicated to protecting the environment - and that includes most of us, according to all the polls - to put our money where our mouth is.