Could the rise of the ‘Land Trust Movement’ represent a retrograde change in the way we protect land for future generations? We may be experiencing a shift is from public responsibility, funding, authority and accountability to private funding and private ownership of conservation lands. Private ownership by Land Trusts –even those incorporated as nonprofits– normally has limited public accountability and transparency. In consequence, the purpose and focus of land protection is in danger of shifting from ecologically sound conservation of plants and animals to the recreational and utilitarian desires of the moneyed elite.
At its best, the Land Trust Movement is the capital economy’s response to ongoing lack of public support for funding public land protection agencies. This attitude suggests that if you want protection for public lands you’re going to have to pay for it yourself. And, this view assumes that development and maximized use is a natural or desirable condition while protection from development and overuse is reduced to a ‘special interest’ – one that should be privately funded.
At its worst, the Land Trust Movement represents a shift toward a new feudalism, widening the gap between the rich and poor via appropriation and control of land once called the American commons. At the whim of wealthy donors, Land Trusts manage and control ecosystems according only to the vicissitudes of an elite few, without regard for or accountability to the people. In essence they transform management of natural areas into a commodity, excluding the views of the relevant sciences and the general public alike.
How is the public losing control? For nearly forty years, the well-worn phrase “the problem with the government is…” has been bleeding into Liberal philosophy, poisoning the public’s faith in the protections offered by the government itself. Other oft heard phrases like “State Parks is corrupt,” “the State Wildlife Agency is inept,” “US Fish and Wildlife does what??” etc. are just different ways of saying the government –the people themselves according to our democratic way of government– doesn’t work. Instead of working with and trying to fix these public agencies, the elite turn their paternalistic worldview to Land Trusts for nature conservation, avoiding those who might disagree with their ‘enlightened view.’ Land Trust lands and sponsored activities often provide outdoor experiences to like-minded people –preferably wealthy and generous. Thus, Land Trusts create ‘nature-consumers’ – distant from nature but feeling a certain privileged ownership of it. Land Trusts and their donors assume a right to use –and through willful neglect degrade– what amount to private parks, under no obligation to protect them from human excesses or the ravages of harmful invasive species. Land Trust clients (a.k.a. donors) are largely derived from social elites: white, upper class, and educated. These donors are at times granted undue influence over land acquisition and management, reducing the importance and influence of scientifically-based conservation and forcing Land Trusts to defer to a use-based approach because someone thinks a new mountain bike trail would be neat or owns a local ATV dealership. Land Trust development officers know that donor-clients are best courted with tangible results involving humans using the land, results that give them social status…that allow for good Facebook selfies: results that can be put in glossy brochures to show that humans with money in this country are free do as they please. To grow this constituency Land Trusts carefully construct messages resonant with this resource-hungry, profit-oriented culture. This uninformed version of ‘sustainable development’ guarantees the continued flow of wealth. ‘Open space’ purchased from ‘willing sellers’ guarantees that neighbors keep their property value (or preferably increase it).
When Private Land Trusts focus on short-term goals of preserving or expanding funding there is a major contrast with Ecological Conservation prioritizing and visualizing the health of the land over time, for today and generations to come. ‘The long view’ holds the health of the land in mind as a concept –let alone a thing of value– in the act of deciding whether to log a certain slope or dam a certain river. In the U.S,. on public land, nature ‘has a say’ in large-scale land use cases, the decision-making authority long having been vested in government. The sheer scale and complex fundraising structure of Land Trusts means at times they acquire ecosystem-defining control, and act without public recourse or long-term restraint in the installation of hiking/biking trails, buffer zones for residents, protecting private interests in timber, livestock, and farming. They expertly facilitate human use and activity, but may fail to consider the long-term ecological implications of their use plans. Nobody disputes that it is a social good to acquire land that might otherwise be degraded by condos, shopping malls, or such. And, it is also good to get people out into nature. But it is possible to ‘love nature to death’: to tread so thoughtlessly, frequently, and heavily on the land in our pursuit of short-term aims that we change it fundamentally for the worse; that we make it no longer the treasured place it was. In most places, municipal land use planning and zoning hasn’t yet addressed the spectrum of differences between the poles of wildlife conservation and open space commoditization on the privately held lands that are crucial for the future of Life.
Public Land Management is the answer. Developing policy based on informed consensus is the method of accountable public institutions. Public institutions –those entrusted with the knowledge and organizational structure to make long-term decisions– are obliged to consider what is best for all citizens in their decisions. Private Land Trusts don’t deliver better conservation results than public land use institutions. Private Land Trusts have developed a certain expertise in generating positive PR even as they obscure their decision-making processes, rely on focus groups instead of sound science in the act of attenuating or refusing community input. Public land agencies have centuries of legal precedent, procedural and environmental know-how, and long-standing, forward-thinking, public-minded mandate. They are not as easily subject to behind-the-scenes deals and ecological equivocations in response to in donor whims. Public trust agencies must adhere to open processes and regulatory application of sound science to protect wildlife and public lands. They must balance short-term interests in recreation and sustainable development with long-term protection for the health of the land and future generations.
It’s a shame in our era of manufactured austerity –when tax cuts are showered on the well-to do while roads crumble, wars get financed, and back-room deals trump common sense– public land use agencies are starved of funding for the short-term illusion of a civil society done on the cheap. Dollars that flow towards privately-controlled Land Trusts should be re-directed towards making our democratic public land management agencies better and stronger. Parallel conservation organizations aren’t what’s missing. We need to invest in our shared public future: of ecologically sound conservation. It really matters to generations and generations of happier, healthier children and well-adjusted adults who feel at home in their world.
Special thanks to Wes Harman for input and editing.