2008 Rally Speech
There is something fresh moving across America—and land trusts are right in the midst of it. Against the great parade of corporations and governments marching to the drums of globalization, there is a small but dedicated group moving cheerfully in the opposite direction, nurturing and celebrating the delights of all things local. This movement seems rooted in three powerful and primal human needs: People want 1) safe food, 2) health and 3) authenticity.
We have all seen the signs: farmers’ markets, CSAs, school gardens sprouting up everywhere—connecting people to nature in ways both simple and profound. The Peconic Land Trust in New York created its own farm stand and the Willistown Conservation Trust created a CSA to help its neighbors better understand the link between land conservation and the food on their dinner table. The Taos Land Trust created a farmers’ market to help local farmers stay in farming, and the Bayfield Regional Conservancy in Wisconsin purchased local orchards so kids can taste heirloom apples rather than the convenience store blend of juices from Brazil, Argentina and New Zealand.
In New York City, the Trust for Public Land purchased more than 60 community gardens, which they are transferring to three local land trusts for community gardens. The Bronx Land Trust looks after Tremont Garden, which used to be a junkyard and a hangout for drug addicts. Elizabeth Butler arrives at the garden every day at 6:30 a.m., feeds the stray cats and looks at the okra, collards, yams and marigolds in the early rays of the sun. Elizabeth is 77 and says, “If I couldn’t come here, it would be rough. I’d be a mess. A disaster. I can’t stay in the house" (NYT, 8/30/08). There are now urban gardens in LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, and over 300 in Detroit alone.
Here in Pennsylvania, you can see horse-drawn buggies of Amish farmers who refrain from using cars and electricity. The Amish culture is as dependent on farmland as the Plains Indians were on the buffalo, but development is driving up costs. The Lancaster Farmland Trust is helping Amish farmers put conservation easements on their farms so that they will remain affordable for future generations.
One of the best ways to reduce obesity, diabetes and ADHD in children is to give them plenty of opportunities to be outdoors. Across the country, land trusts are creating playgrounds, parks and trails to draw children away from their screens and into nature. The Lake Forest Open Lands Association runs a nature center with two full-time naturalists, and the Little Traverse Conservancy brings hundreds of school kids into their preserves each year. The Land Conservancy of New Jersey launched the Partners for Parks program that enlisted 27 corporations and 2,000 volunteers to construct and restore playgrounds, trails and parks.
As a father of two boys, I sometimes think about the world from the perspective of a kid in sneakers. Can he ride his bike to see his friends? Are there woods where he can follow a stream, dig a hole or build a fort? Are there fields where he can run and play? The best way to stop sprawl is to make our towns and cities livable, and many land trusts are encouraging their communities to build in balance with nature, with trails and sidewalks so children can walk to parks, schools and libraries.
With gas prices over $4 a gallon, 2008 became the summer of the “staycation.” But, if you are going to vacation at home, it would be nice to live in a place worth visiting. We travel the world looking for the beauty and authenticity when it could be right in front of us. The good news is that for decades, land trusts have been quietly protecting swimming holes, historic farms, meadows and woods that preserve the unique identity of local communities. Right here in Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania Land Conservancy has protected Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural jewel, Fallingwater, along with 1,000 miles of streams and 225,000 acres of woods and mountains. These are the local jewels that we rediscover when we are at home in a place.
Hungry for food, health and authenticity, people are re-awakening to the local. This, I believe, is one of the most exciting things happening in our country today. And America’s 1,700 community-based land trusts are in the right place at the right time.
Gaining and Keeping Public Trust
To play this emerging leadership role, we must have the support and confidence of Congress, funders and the general public. You will remember that it was just three years ago that Congress and the IRS were investigating allegations of abuse. Land trusts have always been committed to ethics and public trust, but we have made extraordinary progress in the past three years.
- All of our members have adopted the new Land Trust Standards and Practices;
- Over 700 appraisers have been trained and certified for appraising conservation easements;
- We have launched a new online learning center so that land trusts everywhere can have access to the best teaching and model documents;
- We are completing a 15-course curriculum based on the Land Trust Standards and Practices;
- Land trusts will soon have a free, online conservation planning tool, thanks to NatureServe and National Geographic;
- Land trusts are much more aware of tax law, and the IRS now has a much better understanding and respect for the work of land trusts. I would like to recognize Sherry Teresa, executive director of the California Center for Natural Lands Management who, in accordance with Standards and Practices, refused to sign a Form 8283 because she believed that the bargain sale was a regulatory requirement and not eligible for a tax deduction. The landowner sued to get them to sign the 8283, but Sherry stuck to her guns—at a cost of over $900,000 in legal fees. Thanks to Sherry’s courage and tenacity, the world knows how hard land trusts will fight for what is right.
- We are studying the feasibility of an insurance product to cover the increasing litigation costs of defending conservation easements. Our insurance consultant believes that insurance could be offered at about $55 per easement per year, but this will only work if the majority of land trusts participate in the program. I would appreciate your advice on how to design this program so it will work well for you.
- Finally, the land trust community designed, funded and launched an accreditation program. Tonight, the inaugural group of land trusts will receive their accreditation seals. This was not an easy process—it was not meant to be. We owe it to Congress, the IRS, our donors and the public to create a rigorous and credible program that verifies that a land trust is implementing ethical practices.
Three years ago, we made some bold promises and we have kept those promises. As a result, we have earned respect and support in Congress and, last June, they passed a two-year renewal of the conservation tax incentive. After the bill passed, we had a big party in the same Senate hearing room where land trusts had been criticized three years ago. And there, something remarkable happened. Senator Grassley, who had led the investigation of land trusts, stood up and said:
“I want to thank the Land Trust Alliance for their leadership in setting standards for conservation organizations. At a time when ... a shadow [was cast] on all land conservation organizations, the Alliance took the bull by the horns. Instead of waiting to see what the legislative outcome might be, they decided to proactively pursue the path of self-regulation. The Standards and Practices promote transparency, accountability and compliance with the tax laws. I wish that other umbrella groups would ... develop best practices for their own sectors.” Senator Grassley is now a co-sponsor of the bill to make the new tax incentive a permanent part of the tax code.
This tax incentive has already accelerated conservation throughout the country.
- In Pennsylvania, land trusts closed 254 easements in 2007, a 66 percent increase over the rate in 2005 before the tax incentives were passed.
- In Connecticut, the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust increased its annual pace of easements from 7 to 18.
- The Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts increased from 12 to 42.
- In Ohio, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy increased from 12 to 32.
- The Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust tripled its pace from 11 easements per year before the incentive to 34 in 2007.
- In South Carolina, the Edisto Island Open Land Trust did five times the easements in 2006.
This is clearly an idea that’s working. It also demonstrates the reason that America’s land trusts formed the Land Trust Alliance. My thanks to our land trust members and all of you who financially support the Alliance.
A Call to Action
Looking forward, how can we deepen and strengthen our ability as land trusts to celebrate the local, serve our communities, and preserve public trust? Here at Rally we will learn from each other’s stories, and we will inspire each other to go home and do great things in our home town. Tonight, I would like to ask you to do three things:
1) Help design the conservation defense insurance program. If we work together, we can solve this problem before it becomes a crisis.
2) Consider applying for accreditation in 2009. You will help strengthen public trust in the land trust community, but the best reason to pursue accreditation is that it will help you save more land. Ryan Owens at Monadnock Conservancy says “We had to divert tremendous staff resources to prepare our application in early 2007, and that left us anxious about our capacity to close out a successful land protection year. In fact, the opposite came true. Thanks to the refinement of our policies and procedures, our 2007 acreage total was more than double that of 2006, itself a record year. The increases in efficiency and professionalism were well worth the long hours.”
3) Finally, we need your help to build and sustain relationships with your members of Congress. Visit them when they are home on recess. Thank them for voting for the tax incentive. Invite them to speak at every celebration that uses the tax incentive and issue press releases thanking them for their help.
Our top priority is to make the tax incentive permanent, but this will not be easy. We learned the hard way: In Washington, DC, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu! Although we are off to a great start with 200 co-sponsors for the bill to make the tax incentive permanent, we need your help to get this bill passed in 2009.
What do a Bronx gardener, an Amish Farmer and a Wyoming rancher have in common? We all want to have a real life, in a real place, with real food and real people. Land is where these hopes are fulfilled, and land trusts are preserving the beauty of the place we call home.