Steward Little: Which Land Trusts Can You Trust?

Article excerpt

The public places great faith in national conservation groups to preserve ecologically valuable land. Uncritical news coverage and slick fundraising campaigns have something to do with this. But nature-lovers and property owners should be aware that local community-based land trusts are often better stewards of land and more interested in managing land for the enjoyment of the local populace. Unfortunately, many citizens involved in land preservation are unaware of the distinctions.

I learned this lesson through bitter experience. My dad once owned 74 acres in Westport, Connecticut. In 1970, when he was 84, he asked me to help him decide how to preserve the land for the enjoyment and education of his neighbors. He wanted the Christmas trees he'd planted sold to help pay for planting native hardwood, shrubs, and grasses. He wanted trails with plant life identified and education programs for kids. Eventually he chose the Fairfield Chapter of the Connecticut Audubon Society (not affiliated with National Audubon) to carry out his vision because it agreed to do most of what he thought important.

In 1990, 18 years after Dad's death, I discovered Audubon had done nothing it had agreed to. The Christmas trees were 35 feet high and covered with thick bittersweet vines that threaten to kill them. The land was overgrown and untended, and locked gates barred public access. At the Audubon office, I pointed out that densely planted spruce trees provide almost no food and nest sites for birds (except for predatory owls and hawks that eat other birds). The young staffer ignored me and nattered on about a rare hawk seen on the site recently.

Audubon's officials brazenly cited lack of funds for their failure to fulfill the contract. Yet one of the parcels was a Christmas tree farm whose profits were flowing mainly to a former Audubon employee. As far as I could see, not a penny of Audubon's share was being spent to maintain the balance of the 74 acres.

Over the years, I've learned that there are large differences between the practices of national landholding trusts like the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and National Audubon Society and those of the local trusts. There are exceptions to my generalizations, and some local and state chapters with famous brand names are not affiliated with their national namesakes, but may operate as most of the nationals do. The national environmental organizations and their affiliates tend to:

* Follow the thinking of John Muir, a talented nature writer and a founder of the Sierra Club. Muir believed wilderness is best left alone because man can only degrade it. The Muir doctrine, however, has no basis in science. The nationals' philosophy of land management amounts to nonmanagement. And this nonmanagement saves millions of dollars that they can devote to fundraising, salaries, perks, etc.; as the inspector general of the Interior Department points out, the nationals are businesses.

* Limit public access by cutting few trails, allowing ground vegetation to become impenetrable, preserving parcels of land that are bounded entirely by private property, and declaring land off-limits under the Endangered Species Act and other federal legislation.

* Lobby the federal government to manage land their way and to lock away ever more land under the Endangered Species Act, wetlands regulations, and similar laws. Many professional foresters think that such promotion of the Muir philosophy of land management results in more disastrous fires in national parks, like the notorious Yellowstone fire in 1989.

* Engage in the highly profitable business of selling land to the federal government, particularly to various agencies within the Department of the Interior (see [Real Estate of Sale]). Local land trusts, with some exceptions, tend to:

* Use what science-based management they can afford.

* Allow public access and seek multiple uses for preserved property, including recreation, preservation, education, and in some cases sensible, sustainable logging. …