Good evening everyone. It’s wonderful to be here with you tonight.
This week, I’m wrapping up my first nine months as president of the Land Trust Alliance. I’ve made a point in these early days to travel across the country to get to know as much of the land trust community as possible.
My travels have taken me to 16 different states and given me the opportunity to meet hundreds of you. I look forward to meeting the rest of you this weekend and over the next year.
Allow me to mention a few highlights of my travels to date:
I’ve experienced the tremendous beauty of the land during an early evening float on the Teton River in Idaho with the Teton Regional Land Trust [accredited]. The wildlife and sunset were incredible. I visited a 20,000-acre property protected by the Montana Land Reliance [accredited] along the Beartooth front. It consists of prime wildlife habitat on a working cattle ranch. I went to Elk Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, which lies at the heart of a 12,000-acre private forest protected by a conservation easement (one of the first in New York state).
I’ve met incredible people who have conserved their land, such as Ken Engle, a fruit farmer who has protected his farm with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy [accredited] using the conservation easement tax incentive we all worked so hard to put in place, and his neighbors are following his lead.
For those of you whom I have not yet had a chance to meet during my travels, and even those I spent some time with this year, you might be asking where I see our community heading and what my read of the land trust community is.
I see a community that has grown, professionalized and demonstrated incredible creativity and sophistication.
After all, we created from whole cloth an independent accreditation commission and an insurance company that provides land trusts with the legal firepower they need to protect their conserved lands.
We’ve demonstrated formidable skill in generating resources for land conservation through the passage of state and local ballot initiatives, the creation of new Farm Bill programs and our successful campaign to make permanent the enhanced federal tax incentive for conservation easement donations.
Together, land trusts have protected a staggering 56 million acres of land. Of the acres that continue to be stewarded by land trusts, 77% are held by accredited land trusts.
Despite these amazing accomplishments, we have much more work to do under increasingly challenging circumstances. These include continuing population growth, increasing development pressures — especially from fossil fuel and renewable energy development — and increasingly scarce land capital.
And we have a critical vulnerability — one that won’t be news to any of you: Most Americans have never heard of land trusts. Moreover, land and land conservation play little or no role in their lives, at least as far as they are aware.
We continue to rely upon the support and engagement of a sliver of the American populace—a sliver that is far too uniform in terms of race, ethnicity, age, affluence and other characteristics.
This holds true when we look at the face of America today, but the problem becomes especially acute when we look at demographic projections over the next decade and beyond. I can think of no better analysis of this challenge than the “Conservation Horizons” report published by the California Council of Land Trusts last year. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so.
In short, making land, land conservation and land trusts relevant to many more Americans represents our biggest challenge over the next decade.
Failing to expand our relevance risks our legacy — both the permanence of our conservation work and our policy victories.
And failing to expand our relevance jeopardizes our chances of generating the resources we need to increase the rate of land conservation and to protect, in time, the millions of acres deserving permanent protection.
The good news is that building this relevance lies completely within our power. There are so many ways for us to demonstrate the value of land and land conservation to people and for us to better serve their needs:
We can offer people in-person “boots on the ground” experiences.
We can speak to people’s values, whether they self-identify as liberal or conservative.
We can articulate the litany of ways that land plays an important role in improving people’s daily lives.
Boots on the Ground
More and more land trusts are seeing the rewards of getting people out on the lands they have conserved and even creating what land trust consultant Judy Anderson calls “Ambassador Landscapes” [see “Fostering a Love of the Land,” Saving Land, Fall 2014]. These are conserved places designed specifically to promote strong emotional connections between people and the outdoors.
I saw the power of this concept in action this summer when I visited Rendezvous Park, a project of the Jackson Hole Land Trust [accredited] and Rendezvous Lands Conservancy in Jackson, Wyoming, on the banks of the Snake River. “R Park” is a 40-acre park for all to use — a free, easily accessible open space in which the whole community can experience nature, find inspiration and discover the benefits that a natural setting provides.
On top of all of this — and this is critical — the park helped raise the profiles of the land trusts and their eagerness to serve the needs of all people in the community.
At Rally you’ll hear how other land trusts have created opportunities for people in the communities they serve to get out on the land — specifically, people who have not traditionally been engaged in or moved by land conservation.
To me, this embodies the essence of community conservation and represents one of the most important things that land trusts can do to build our relevance.
As we think about how to reach new people in our local communities, we need to be aware of the fact that we often assume that others share our moral values and motivations. That is often not the case, however, and we need to learn how to frame the issues we care about using values with the greatest resonance for the audiences we are trying to reach.
Dr. George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, has written extensively about the importance of environmentalists speaking about the issues they care about in terms of moral values. In his 2010 article titled “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment,” Lakoff explains that people with a liberal world view are motivated by appeals to empathy, personal responsibility and the ethic of excellence. These core values lead liberal-leaning people to see inherent value in the natural world and unleash in them a desire to preserve it. [Lakoff, p. 77]
But how do we speak to people that self-identify as conservative?
In his book Getting to Green, Alliance board member and author Frederic C. Rich examines this question in depth.
He contends that conservative audiences don’t respond well to arguments about the intrinsic value of nature. To better reach them, environmentalists should focus on how environmental protection serves the needs of people. And he suggests we “appeal to easily understood virtues such as prudence, responsibility, humility, generosity, courage and patriotism.” [Rich, p. 206]
The good news is that land conservation fits perfectly within both of these liberal and conservative frames and allows us to speak persuasively to people across the political spectrum as we seek to expand our relevance. We just need to be conscious about how we frame our communications with different segments of our local communities.
If we look at the ways that land serves the needs of people, what better way to make land, land conservation and land trusts relevant to more Americans than to highlight the myriad ways we can proudly exclaim: “LAND IS THE ANSWER!”
Let’s make this list and refrain familiar to more Americans:
How do we secure local, healthy and sustainable food? Land is the answer.
How do we ensure clean and abundant water supplies? Land is the answer.
How do we foster healthy child development, physical vitality and learning? Land is the answer.
How do we stem a national health crisis and provide opportunities for people to exercise and recreate? Land is the answer.
How do we make sure that iconic American ways of life, such as hunting, fishing and ranching, don’t die out? Land is the answer.
And allow me to add an additional item to this list:
How can we mitigate climate change? Land is the answer.
Scientists at The Nature Conservancy [accredited] have determined that protecting, restoring and changing how we manage land globally could contribute more than a quarter of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to reach the goals of the international Paris Agreement on climate change that just went into effect.
Our community should seize and promote this remarkable finding, which, as important as it is, doesn’t even begin to touch on the various ways that conserved lands can help humans adapt to the impacts of climate change.
I understand the argument that we should steer clear of the climate change issue as it may put at risk the incredible bipartisan support among policymakers that our community enjoys. But I also believe that we have a moral obligation to address the greatest environmental crisis of our time. And I’m not proposing that we do this by our community advocating for a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax. We can help mitigate climate change by doing what we’ve always done: conserving more land and stewarding it effectively.
In doing so we’ll definitively demonstrate our relevance to people and their wellbeing, while simultaneously bringing home significant financial resources to power our land conservation efforts.
The Web of Life
As a caveat, I have one qualifier to my call to emphasize at every opportunity how our work serves people. Let’s make sure that we leave room in our movement for individuals like me who are also motivated to conserve land for the sake of other species and our planet’s extraordinary web of life, regardless of how doing so might serve humankind.
There are people who claim it is essentially naïve to seek to protect what remains of the wild. They argue that we have moved into a new era known as the Anthropocene — an age in which essentially nothing is left untouched by humankind and ecosystems should be prioritized for conservation based on a determination of their usefulness to our species.
The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book Half-Earth, prefers a different name for such an era: the Eremocene, which means the Age of Loneliness.
As he explains it, this would be a world featuring three components:
our domesticated plants and animals and
croplands stretching around the world as far as we can see. [Wilson, p. 20]
A world even half that stark and simplified would deeply sadden us all.
So I again ask that we all continue to make room for and continue to respect conservation efforts designed to preserve biodiversity regardless of any practical benefits to humankind.
Keeping the Trust
Finally, I’d like to focus on one broad campaign theme that emerged during the election cycle and what it might mean for our community.
In segments of both the political left and the political right, we have seen discomfort with, if not outright rejection of, the establishment.
In particular, there is a palpable sentiment among many voters that the rich, powerful and connected have gamed the system for their benefit, allowing them to secure huge financial gains while many regular people languish and fall behind financially. Much of the public is incensed and seeks to end this unfairness.
Why is this relevant to our community?
Because we face the real possibility that this frustration, anger and distrust will be directed toward us if we do not address head on the fact that we are seeing people use the tax incentive for conservation donations to make substantial profits on land held for only a short period of time.
Charitable donations of conservation easements need to look and feel like charity to all audiences, including the public, media and Congress. If conservation easements become associated with transactions characterized by quick, substantial profits, our reputation and that of conservation easements are at risk. This holds true no matter how beautiful and valuable the land is that is protected through these transactions. Likewise, it holds true even if the transactions have not been deemed illegal by the IRS or Congress. We may not have yet experienced the blowback that could come when news of these transactions hits the media and the halls of Congress, but I’m not willing to take that chance.
This is why the Alliance issued its advisory about these transactions in August, and the current discussion draft of the revised Land Trust Standards and Practices includes parallel language to help Alliance members avoid enabling these transactions.
And it is why the Alliance is asking the IRS to issue guidance about these transactions, and for Congress to get involved, if necessary (see our blog post).
I ask that you join me in ensuring that the integrity of the charitable tax deduction for conservation easement donations — and our community’s reputation— remain intact:
Please review our advisory and be vigilant for the indicators of potentially problematic transactions.
As we celebrate the one-year anniversary of Congress’s vote to make the enhanced tax incentive permanent, please make a point of thanking your members of Congress and telling them about the great projects you’ve done over the years using that incentive — we need Congress to understand the importance and value of our work if the incentive does come under fire.
Finally, as the Alliance advances its strategies to address problematic easement transactions, we may put out a call for your help. I urge you to answer that call, whether it be placing an op-ed in a local paper urging your members of Congress to act, or inviting them out to visit a property you have conserved using the federal tax incentive. Your voices carry tremendous weight on Capitol Hill.
I chose to take this job because I believe in private land conservation, I believe in this community and I believe in the Land Trust Alliance.
We truly are in a position to address many of the biggest challenges our society faces, and we have the passion and the power when we come together to make that happen.
For nine months I’ve witnessed and lived the great work of land trusts around the country, diving deep into the challenges and opportunities that we face.
It’s been a great first nine months — thank you all for welcoming me and for sharing with me your ideas for how best to protect the land.
I am humbled by your dedication, I am inspired by your passion and I am comforted by your friendship.
Land is the answer, and, together, we will accomplish great things in the years to come.
Together we will advance change and increase impact for land conservation.