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Greed and Generosity

Rally 2012, Welcoming Dinner Speech

By Rand Wentworth, President, Land Trust Alliance


Gene Wheadon wore a red flannel shirt, green work pants and an old white cowboy hat. At 80 years old, Gene had a small, wiry frame and was always on the move. Since the 1930s, Gene raised sheep, cattle, turkeys, chickens and all kinds of vegetables on prime farmland about 20 miles from here in the Salt Lake Valley.

A friend offered to introduce Gene to Wendy Fisher at Utah Open Lands. She wanted to make a good impression so she put on her best cowboy shirt and cowboy boots and drove her pickup out to his farm. Gene said, “Nice outfit.” He was talking about her truck.

There was something different about Gene. He never married. Every morning he made himself a shake of orange juice, bananas and cayenne pepper. And he had a generous heart. During the Great Depression, miners from the Bingham Mine would stand in a bread line, and Gene would drive out and give them fresh vegetables. Wendy says that when she would visit, “Before I got out of my truck he was loading the back with tomatoes and pumpkins.”

As the years passed, Salt Lake City expanded south and developers made offers to buy Gene’s farm for the next high-end subdivision. But Gene turned them down. He had something else in mind. The day after he met Wendy Fisher, he called her at home at 5:30 a.m., and woke her up to talk about conservation easements.  It is hard to believe, but Gene called Wendy every morning at 5:30 for a year and a half. This lady deserves a medal! Wendy asked him why he was interested in conserving his land and Gene replied: “You can’t eat money.”

In the end, Gene donated an easement on the farm, and the Governor of Utah came out to the media celebration and said “We only get one chance at this.” He hoped more landowners would capture Gene’s generous spirit.

Even after Gene signed the easement, he kept calling Wendy every morning at 5:30 a.m. As many of us know from our work in conservation, this is more than a real estate deal – it is a friendship and a common love of the land. One morning, two months after the closing, Wendy didn’t get a call until 7 a.m.  It was from the friend who introduced her to Gene. Gene had died that morning under his favorite cottonwood tree on the farm.  

Gene did what he needed to do.

“We only get one chance at this.”

But that is not the end of the story. Since Gene did not have any direct heirs, the bank handling the estate sued to break the conservation easement claiming that Gene was mentally incompetent. If successful, the heirs would get millions and the bank would get a 9% commission. But Utah Open Lands stood up to the legal challenges and today, the farm is protected and home to two organic CSAs.

Greed is nothing new in this world. In the late 1880’s Collis Huntington, owner of the Central Pacific Railroad, had a sign in his office with two lines: First: “Whatever is not nailed down belongs to me. Second: “Whatever can be pried loose is not nailed down.” Half of land trusts say that they have had legal challenges and this will increase dramatically as land is transferred to new owners. Conservation easements are still a new legal tool and there is little case law to guide judicial decisions. A few bad court decisions could jeopardize the permanence of conservation everywhere.

Because few land trusts have the funds to fight a protracted legal battle, the Land Trust Alliance set out to design a way to pool our risks. We have completed the planning, received the regulatory approvals and raised the required $5.5 million in capital. So tonight, I am pleased to announce that we have created a charitable risk pool. “Terrafirma” – an insurance service that will fund the legal costs of defending conservation lands. No longer will a single land trust be alone in the face of a well-funded adversary. We will stand together and we will prevail. Please join me in thanking those who worked to make this new service possible.

This is a milestone in the history of land conservation and a great way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Land Trust Alliance. We are all grateful to the land trusts that had the foresight to create the Alliance and to the hundreds who have served as faculty, advisors, advocates, donors and board members. Together, we have raised the effectiveness and political strength of land trusts around the country. And we have grown to a community of 5 million members that has conserved 50 million acres. We convinced Congress to strengthen tax incentives for conservation easements, doubled the pace of conservation and created accreditation and Terrafirma. Taken together, these will make a strong foundation for our growth for years to come.

Do you know what the largest living thing is on Earth? This afternoon I was on a field trip to an aspen grove and learned that each tree looks like it stands as an individual unit. But, under the surface, the roots are intertwined and share identical DNA. There is an aspen grove here in Utah that covers 104 acres. Land trusts are like that. We each have our own identity, but, beneath the surface, we are united by common standards, accreditation, a commitment to permanence, and a dedication to conserving the places that matter most.

Now we face our greatest challenge. Congress has gone home without approving conservation tax incentives or the Farm Bill, and we face the prospect of major tax reform that could remove the reasons that private landowners donate easements. Many Americans watch Congress and have lost all hope. We cannot give up. Eventually, Congress will have to make decisions and we are determined to be at the table. With your help in building relationships with members of Congress, we can increase the political power of the land trust community

Looking ahead to the next 30 years, I recognize that predicting the future is tricky business. Kehlog Albran said, “I have seen the future and it is very much like the present, only longer.”  But here are some guesses:

  • The United States will add 100 million in population and triple the amount of land covered by buildings and pavement.
  • In 30 years, the majority of Americans will not be descended from northern Europeans.
  • Technology and social media will transform how we collaborate, plan conservation, monitor easements.
  • Anyone will be able to go online and see the map and ecological features for all conserved land in America.
  • The next generation of conservation leaders will invent new tools beyond conservation easements. Land trusts will double the amount of land they have protected to 100 million acres, but they will measure their success more by the ways in which the community is engaged and the number of people served.
  • The majority of new conservation will be voluntary partnerships with private landowners.
  • Many land trusts will transition from saving land to engaging their communities and connecting people to nature.
  • The local food movement will flourish and land trusts will be at the heart of making this possible.
  • America will come to appreciate the health benefits of time in nature.
  • As our lives become intertwined with technology, people will be hungry for the presence of real things, which land trusts offer.

Here is a story about the impact of the land on one young man

When Greg Grening was three years old, he had his own tree house just a few feet above ground at the edge of the woods near his house in Pennsylvania. Greg overheard his father talking to the owner of the land who said that he was selling it to developers and wrote the neighbor a note: “Deer John, Please don’t sell the woods. Love, Greg”. For some reason, the neighbor decided not to sell the woods.

When Greg was a teenager, his neighbor tried to sell the land again and Greg was visibly upset, muttering, “They’re going to ruin the woods.” After high school, Greg joined the Marines and, late one night, his mother got a call: “We’ve been on alert all day, and I’ll be boarding the ship soon.” His mother got another call in the middle of the night on Greg’s 20th birthday when he was preparing for battle in Iraq.

Greg survived Iraq, was honorably discharged from the Marines. As soon as he came home, he went for a walk in the woods with his mother and said, “Who has been running four-wheelers here? If I had the money, I’d buy it and keep them out.”

Greg enrolled in the community college, adopted a dog, and proposed to his high-school sweetheart. He was preparing a good life for himself. A month later, his mother got another late-night telephone call—this time from a hospital. When she arrived at the hospital she learned that Greg had died in an accident. In the depth of her grief, she decided to use his life insurance to buy the land he loved. She said, “If we have to bury Greg, we should bury him in the woods.”

Working with the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, she bought the woods and created the Gregory Alan Grening Forest Preserve. A young boy, turned young man, who will never grow old, will finally have his wish that no one will “ruin the woods.”

Conserving land takes a generous heart. Gene Wheadon giving vegetables to workers in the bread line. Greg Grening willing to put his life at risk in service to his country. A mother in grief who gave what her son most wanted. Thousands of landowners who have made a gift of a conservation easement. The spirit of generosity of the land trust leaders who are willing to freely share what they know. And all in this room tonight who give their time to conserve land for people they may never meet. What greater act of generosity can there be than to save land that will heal and renew people for generations to come.

We only get one chance at this.

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