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Lobbying, Advocacy and Land Trusts

All land trusts advocate for their cause. They advocate for the importance of land conservation. The primary target for this advocacy may be the landowners in their community – or even a small subset of those landowners (say, the farmers).

Whether this advocacy is lobbying is a question of who we advocate these things to – not of what we advocate.

We live in a democracy, where everything we do is to some degree (often to a large degree) subject to rules that the people's representatives are free to change. Where a local government can condemn a property we have protected to build a highway or a school. Where a state legislature can prohibit the donation of permanent conservation easements (North Dakota's has). Where the federal government is free to decide that there are many things more important than allowing landowners to take a tax deduction for the donation of a conservation easement (people tend to forget that this deduction is a special exception to the rules – no other donation of a partial interest in property can be claimed as a charitable contribution).

Even those land trusts who have no interest in taking sides in general plans, zoning disputes, or controversy have a basic responsibility to educate their elected officials about what they are doing and why it is important, to ensure that they will at least be allowed to continue to do it.

Many land trusts go much further, cultivating the support of local officials and the public for legislation and referenda that create funding to purchase land or conservation easements. Or asking their Congressional representatives to help them get federal grants to do the same. They view this as a simple extension of their work with landowners, and as a way of getting effective conservation to reach landowners who can't afford to donate their most valuable family asset. The Land Trust Alliance has spent an enormous amount of time lobbying Congress to increase tax benefits and funding that help support land conservation.

Some land trusts have made a strategic decision to directly take on controversial land use decisions, asking local governments to make tough land use choices. The Piedmont Environmental Council is a great example. Their Executive Director, Chris Miller, tells me that he is convinced that his advocacy work increases his easement donations – because it shows landowners that his organization is fully committed to protecting what those landowners value about their local landscape. Chris has built an organization that is strong enough to do this – not just to dish out the heat, but to take it. For those of you interested in why and how a land trust could do this, I highly recommend that you come to the Alliance Rally and attend one or more of the sessions that Chris and other land trust leaders who have taken this path are giving on their work in this arena.

This path isn't for everyone. How far people want their organization to go in this arena is a strategic choice for the organization. It depends on the organization's capabilities, on its ambitions, on the culture of the community it is working in, on the landscape it is trying to protect and on the threats to that landscape.

But every land trust has a minimum responsibility to educate its elected officials about what it is doing – because those people make the rules by which we work. If they aren't educated about the importance of you are doing, you cannot expect them to defend those rules – let alone to make them better.

You may think that no one would ever attack those rules, or would ever succeed. But if you are successful at protecting land, sooner or later you will have presented an obstacle to someone – an heir who would prefer to sell the farm to a developer, a developer who needs a road across the property you protect, a politician looking for someone to blame for hard times down on the farm, or an ideologue who simply thinks what you do is wrong.

An ounce of prevention is worth pounds of cures. Ask the Montanans who had to stop their work with landowners on donations to come to the state capitol to stop a bill that threatened to shut down conservation easement donations in the state.

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Advocates Alerts

July 17: The House just voted 277-130 to pass the charities package! 56 Democrats joined their Republican colleagues to support charitable giving incentives, including the enhanced easement incentive - the second-highest number of defections after the research and development tax credit. Several others spoke on the floor in support of the conservation easement incentive, and other favorable charitable incentives. Thank you to organizations like Ducks Unlimited, CSF and others that reached out to Congressional offices over the last few days or alerted their membership of this important vote. Now, we pivot to the Senate.
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