Putting Trust in Land Trusts
by Jonathan Hill
The Eastern Red Cockaded woodpecker tapped incessantly on the side of a mature longleaf pine. This tree was its home; it is the only woodpecker to boor into living trees and it only utilizes longleaf pines. Suddenly, the bird froze. A few moments later it flew off to escape the danger it sensed. As it did this I lowered my smartphone disappointedly (it was my first time seeing such a bird in the wild), and headed back on the manmade trail to the visitors center at Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve. At 915 acres this park in Southern Pines, North Carolina, is one of the largest preserves of old growth longleaf pine in the state, and in the world. This is one of many examples of the thousands of state parks that have been established across the US from the foundation of the first state park at Niagara Falls in 1885. However, in reality I could have been describing a scene in Croatan National Forest, San-Lee County Park, or the Nature Conservancy’s Green Swamp Preserve, for all of these contain similar ecosystems. The US Conservation Movement of the 20th century created a vast array of private and public preserves of a wide variety of sizes. While some are owned by the federal government, many others are owned and operated by the state, local communities, and NGOs. Is this the perfect system? Most likely not, but as government deadlock and conservative state legislatures cut back on park funding, NGOs are becoming a more important part of the conservation movement, as they should.
Federal preserves comprise the largest proportion of conserved land in the United States The Department of the Interior has preserved massive acreage in the form of National Parks, Forests, Wildlife Refuges, etc. However, the majority of this land is concentrated in the western United States and Alaska, where the land was cheap and unpopulated. Only six national parks lie east of the Mississippi River. Those that do tend to be located in isolated pockets where it was difficult for man to reach. While this means that they are all the more pristine, it also hinders access to the general population. Out-of-the-way parks require a car and gas to fuel it; thus lower income families are less likely to access these parks. Many of the more popular parks, especially in the west, charge admission. This further limits the accessibility of these lands to the lower and middle classes.
State parks serve a unique spot in the American conservation movement. While very few are larger than National Parks, they provide a lasting impact on the states they conserve. However, they are also dependent on state legislatures for funding. This source tends to fluctuate much more than funding for National Parks, and can greatly inhibit the growth of parks during poor economic times. North Carolina’s own state park system has grown in spurts since its creation one hundred years ago. The majority of these parks were formed in the 1930s, the 1970s, and the early 2000s. When the General Assembly is not controlled by a Democrat majority, the funding for state parks always hangs in the balance. For example, in the past year alone the executive branch of the North Carolina government was forced to place much needed funding for state parks on the ballot as a bond referendum, for the legislative branch refused to pay for these expenditures. While state parks are much more numerous in number and tend to be closer, and thereby more easily accessible, to the public, they run the risk of budget cuts and lack of funding.
The alternative to state land conservation, then, if we want parks to stay open and free to the public, lies with land trusts and NGOs. Now, I must admit to having some bias here, as land trusts and environmental NGOs have been my soul source of employment for the past 5 years, but this also means I’ve had firsthand experience of the quiet but important work they put into the field of conservation. Nonprofits work with private landowners to put conservation easements into place. These easements essentially ensure that the property stays green: no one can change the appearance of the property without going through a lengthy legal process to get the conservation easement revoked. Through this process NGOs working throughout the country have conserved over 23.5 million acres of land. While this is still only about a fourth of the land preserved by National Parks, the number is growing constantly.
NGOs have also gotten into creating their own public nature preserves. This is particularly this case in the Durham area, where the Triangle Land Conservancy has acquired enough land to create ten nature preserves that rival the size of some state parks. Of these, six are open to the general public and the rest are on their way. Unlike the lands conserved by states or the federal government, many of these preserves are located in urban or soon to be urban areas. NGOs that do not form nature preserves, such as the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, often end up donating the land they acquire to the state or federal parks system.
Of course, there are drawbacks to this system. These organizations rely on donors to survive: if one of these land trusts has no wealthy conservationist to provide funding, it is highly unlikely that these organizations will succeed in their quest to preserve land. However, this is not to say that these NGOs should not exist if they cannot afford to buy land straight up. How many people would know about conservation easements without the efforts of these land trusts? I sure didn’t until working for one. These organizations provide a crucial role in the conservation process, one that is perhaps best in a day and age when government deadlock prevents any large amount of land from being acquired by the federal government. While Washington falters and conservative state governments continue to cut funding, Environmental NGOs stand as a steady source of land preservation.
I appreciated that you chose to write about land trusts in North Carolina, as prior to reading your blog I knew very little about them and their importance. You make a good argument, and I like how you begin by drawing on your own personal experiences in nature watching the Eastern Red Cockaded. While your blog was first and foremost about land trusts, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the state park system in North Carolina. You mention that when the General Assembly is not controlled by a Democrat majority, the finding for state parks decreases significantly. Why do you think that is? What has changed in our political climate such that environmental issues have become so radically partisan? I look back on the conservation work of republican Teddy Roosevelt, and can’t help but wonder what has happened to his party. In fact, Roosevelt helped establish over 230 million acres of public land during his presidency, 150 acres of which were set aside as national forests. He was also the first president to create a Federal Bird Reserve. Do you think there is a way that environmental issues will cease to become so partisan?
With National Parks, State forests, and community green spaces seen as a given, although I have studied their formation, I have rarely contemplated what sustains these places we’ve come to value so greatly. For I have explored the concept of wilderness and the paradox that “if we ourselves believe that nature, to be real, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall” (Cronon). Yet, never have I truly given thought to how the presence rather than absence of humans actually works to maintain, fund, and protect such parks. With gridlock and party polarization plaguing the federal government, national parks certainly suffer. I was thoroughly interested by your point of an almost environmental gentrification issue involving lower income families and their inability to visit due to the high prices of admission. Since when did nature require a higher status of living to enjoy? Such volatility of state funded parks is certainly not much better. The health and upkeep of nature preserves should not be dependent on who is in office, yet it can’t help but to be noted that this is often unavoidable. Thus, your emphasis on placing trust in land trusts came across both revolutionary and obvious. I found myself thinking of course we should have trust in land trusts, but why have we not focused on this beforehand? Placing trust in the hands of people with parks, forests, and preserves as their main priority is a clear choice. Although some volatility does exist in NGO’s due to donor variability, the investment and non-governmental affiliation of environmental NGO’s offers a lifeline for such places of wilderness that need continued protection and funding.
Even after working for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, I was completely unaware of the work the Conservation Trust was doing, perhaps just a few blocks down the roads. I am intrigued by your discussion of how NGOs and conservancies function as pseudo-authorities in the creation of land trusts, rather than relying on a park system that is being steadily whittled down. Thinking on it now, I’m saddened that such an alternative has arisen at the same time conservative politicians have, but it’s an ingenious and necessary supplements to keep urban spaces green. I’m reminded of projects like the High Line Park in Brooklyn, where environmental NGOs similarly reclaimed a former freight-line high above the streets. They allowed the self-seeded flora and fauna to thrive, and implanted native species along 1.5 miles of what used to be a pipeline for pollution. It’s inspiring to see an aerial greenway form there, and I share your enthusiasm for finding alternate ways to preserve lands where we can.
That said, I also agree that there’s a very real danger when funding begins to dry up, or public interest fades away in the face of economic profits. At the NCLCV, by far the biggest problem we faced was maintaining donors year to year, trying to build our base, and making ourselves relevant when the state legislature and executive consistently had more funding and more power. Kudos to the Conservation Trust- keep fighting the good fight.
The balance of funding issue here is what really intrigues me. It’ll be intersting to see how things play out in terms of land conservation in the future. You point out that right now we should consider federal and state conservation both trending down or neutrally while NGO conservation is trending up. First of all, it’s pretty incredible that NGOs are sustainable organizations. Considering that they are donor based and still operational at a scale that rivals NC state government conservation, you have to consider them to be pretty effective. People probably consider them to be trustworthy organizations that are worth donating to, since you feel that you have confidence in an organization that is solely committed to conservation. Meanwhile, the state governments of NC and the federal government seem unwilling to increase park funding substantially.
This makes me ask the question: Are NGOs the future of land conservation? The current trends suggest to me that NGOs seem poised to play a significant role in land conservation in the future. However, I would imagine that federal gridlock will end at some point. Given that the younger generation in this country is generally more liberal, I would expect the federal government to shift in that direction over time. This may be an incorrect assumption, but I think maybe the federal government will have larger contributions to conservation in the future. Being a resident of the state of North Carolina as well, I think I am pessimistic about NC actually putting much money towards park conservation. As you have mentioned, money put towards environmental causes often feels misallocated. The conservative state government does not really seem to have its ‘heart’ truly invested in preserving the environment.
Anyway, you’re article was certainly informative for me regarding NGOs. I didn’t know anything about their efforts prior. Again, I’ll be interested to follow the issue in the future. Will the federal government rekindle interest in preserving large swathes of land? As Diana mentioned in the comments already, Roosevelt made huge contributions to land preservation on the federal level in the past. It was certainly easier, because there was more unused and unpreserved land when he was president. However, I do think it’s important that the federal precedent for land conservation exists. I would love to visit more parks myself. Hopefully, the funding exists in the future.
NGOs should only be commended for the great work they are doing in both the private purchase of undeveloped land and the support they offer landowners who are looking to see the benefit of land easements. However, only the former is something NGOs can do entirely within the realm of private business. The latter finds its attractiveness through the promise of federal and state. Not many folks are so environmentally altruistic that they would willingly desire to constrain how they may use their own land. Conservation easements, once agreed upon, prevent the landowner (and all future land owners) from particular activities that would degrade the environmental quality of the parcel they put into easement. Luckily, legislation at the federal level recently passed raising the tax deduction gleaned by putting land into a conservation easement from 30% to 50% for normal landowners, and 50 to 100% for ranchers and farmers.
Some States further support land easements through their own tax deductions or tax credits. However, North Carolina has made it much less of an enticing deal for private landowners to move acreage into a conservation easement due to a 2014 repeal of the NC Conservation Tax Credit. Prior to its repeal, the Tax Credit offered a 25% tax credit in addition to the 50% federal tax deduction. The Conservation Trust of North Carolina estimates that a tremendous swath of land, upwards of 250,000 acres, was protected during the tenure of this Tax Credit. While options still remain for private land trusts to acquire land easements, it must be noted that the presence of government support via credits and deductions create powerful selling points that would not exist otherwise. Currently, 16 States support land easements through additional tax credits. It would be in the best interest of the major land trusts, like the Conservation Trust, the Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited, to support legislation that makes their goals easier to accomplish.
It’s interesting to learn about conservation land trusts, because until your blog I only really understood community land trusts in the way they can keep property prices low and prevent gentrification. The issue I see with land trusts is how they echo the institutional commitment of state parks/federally-protected lands, without the kind of checks and balances that exist in government institutions. Community land trusts solve this by using community involvement to set rents. While perhaps I give the government (state, federal, local) too much credit regarding their commitment to conservation, I have reservations because of how conservation land trust institutions (NGOs, etc) are reliant on spotty sources of funding and often are elitist in their politics. Some environmental NGOs are (not always, of course) more committed to a John Muir-esque idea of preservation than a holistic idea of conservation to maintain human welfare. While I do not know of any conservation land trusts that consider the welfare of nearby communities during their operations, I can think of a few urban conservation projects that use community involvement/outreach to simultaneously inspire community uplift and increase conservation/microclimate effects in urban environments.
 United States. National Park Service. (2016, March 15). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/faqs.htm
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