Putting Trust in Land Trusts

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[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] When the General Assembly is not controlled by a Democrat majority, the funding for state parks always hangs in the balance.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.

[1] United States. National Park Service. (2016, March 15). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/faqs.htm

[2] USA National parks map. (2015). from http://www.mapsofworld.com/usa/national-parks/

[3] N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation: About Us – Park System – Main. (2015). Retrieved March 20, 2016, from http://web.archive.org/web/20101120181206/http://www.ncparks.gov/About/system_main.php

[4] Earnhardt, Tom. “As NC Parks Turn 100, a Missed Opportunity.” Newsobserver. 21 Mar. 2015. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.

[5] Jarvis, C. (2015, October 21). McCrory’s signature launches $2 billion NC bond campaign. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article40647324.html

[6] National Conservation Easement Database Portal. 2015, from http://www.conservationeasement.us/

[7] Walk in the Woods of North Carolina – Triangle Land Conservancy Nature Preserves. (2016). from https://www.triangleland.org/explore/nature-preserves