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Landmark Gift Advances Nationwide Land Trust Accreditation Program

August 9, 2006 | Washington, D.C.

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jim Wyerman
202-638-4725 x310

Washington, D.C. - Philanthropist Forrest Berkley tells a story about how his mother, as a young woman who had grown up in New York City on welfare during the Depression, was so moved by the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that she thought, “I didn’t know you could own a tree. What a wonderful idea! Wouldn’t it be nice if I were successful enough to own a tree some day?” Little did she know that her son would grow up to be a visionary conservationist, whose generosity is supporting programs to conserve millions of acres of undeveloped land across America.   

Now living in Massachusetts and Maine, Berkley and his wife Marcie Tyre this week announced a $1 million gift to the Land Trust Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports private conservation through community organizations called land trusts, to help improve their professionalism and support a new system of accreditation for land trusts. $500,000 of this gift, the largest gift from any individuals in the Alliance’s history, will be used to establish a $2 million Berkley Endowment for the new Land Trust Accreditation Commission – an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance.

“I am making this gift because accreditation is the most important tool I’ve heard of that can dramatically improve how conservation is done” said Berkley.  “The accreditation program will allow land conservation programs to be set up more quickly, and it will enable volunteer land trusts to become more professional in the work they do. Land trusts have enormously contributed to the public good by protecting millions of acres, but they also need to look more closely at issues like conflicts of interest than they have in the past.” He hopes the Berkleys’ gift—by including a match requirement for the second $500,000—will inspire others to invest in this program, which he sees as “having the potential to significantly increase the scale and quality of lands conserved across America.”

Regional conservation leaders applauded the gift. "Land trusts play a critical role in protecting the quality of life in communities across the country.  These nonprofits deserve to be recognized and strengthened through accreditation. We commend the Alliance's leadership in securing financial support to make accreditation more affordable - particularly as many land trusts are small and all-volunteer," remarked Andrew Kendall, President of The Trustees of Reservations, the first regional land trust in the country established in Boston in 1891.

Bob Wilber, Director of Land Protection, Massachusetts Audubon, said “I am pleased to learn of this generous gift to advance a national accreditation program for land trusts.  I am particularly glad to hear that this forward-thinking support was provided by a resident of Massachusetts, where the land trust movement began over a century ago. With nearly 15,000 acres lost to development each year in the Bay State alone, and over 2 million acres of land lost each year nationally, a capable, dependable land trust movement is needed now more than ever.”

An avid hiker in the Northeast, Berkley’s love for the outdoors grew from summers spent with his family visiting the National Parks across the U.S. As adults, he and Marcie have gone sea kayaking from Maine to Alaska, and trekked and kayaked overseas. Marcie credits her conservation interest to her deep love of the woods throughout New England, where she spends much of her time and finds personal renewal.

Further explaining his gift, Berkley said, “To me, this advancement is worth more than the next 10 pristine parcels of land we might purchase and protect, because accreditation ensures that future conservation—over a vastly larger area—will be done properly and with integrity."

This gift comes on the heels of Congressional passage late last week of a new tax incentive for voluntary conservation agreements on land set aside for farming, ranching and a range of conservation activities. The new law also cracks down on appraisals of all gifts donated to charities. Passed as part of the pension reform package and expected to be signed by the President, the law will promote land conservation and support farmers who are struggling to protect the land that they have lived and worked on for generations.

This new federal law will extend the carry-forward period for tax deductions for voluntary conservation agreements from 5 to 15 years and raise the cap on those deductions from 30 percent of a donor’s adjusted gross income to 50 percent—and up to 100 percent for qualifying ranchers and farmers. The law also stiffens the rules and penalties for appraisals of all donated property, including conservation agreements.

At the time when America’s charities were facing unprecedented inquiries from Congress, the IRS and the media in 2005, the land trust community had already tightened its professional standards and begun designing an accreditation program for land trusts.  In the fall of 2005, the Alliance’s board moved quickly to approve the program’s design, followed by the incorporation in April 2006 of a new subsidiary, known as the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance.

Alliance President Rand Wentworth stated, “Land trusts have protected more than 34 million acres across the United States, more land than the entire national park system in the lower 48 states. To further increase the pace and quality of land conservation, given the increasingly complex and sophisticated nature of the business, the Alliance believes it is essential for the private sector to develop a voluntary training and accreditation program for the country’s 1,500+ land trusts. We are profoundly grateful that Forrest Berkley and Marcie Tyre have invested to make this program a reality.”

Land trusts manage billions of dollars of federal tax incentives, state tax credits, bond issues, private capital, and real estate transactions each year. They have grown into one of the largest segments of the environmental movement; with that comes great responsibility and accountability to the public. Through their accreditation programs, museums, universities and hospitals have all earned professional and public recognition for decades. America’s land trusts will now join their ranks as highly respected and self-regulated institutions.

Forrest Berkley’s mother would be proud.

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Forrest Berkley is a board member of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and a sponsor of many conservation initiatives throughout New England and beyond.  Berkley recently retired as a partner after 20 years of service at investment firm Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co. in Boston and formed the Excess Return Fund to support capacity-building initiatives for land conservation.

Headquartered in Washington, DC with regional offices in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and West, the Land Trust Alliance works to accelerate the pace, increase the quality and ensure the permanence of land conservation in America. The Alliance’s deep investment in public policy, research, education and outreach leverages the work of America’s 1,500 land trusts to save more forests, working farms, parks and natural areas in communities across our country.

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