The Magazine

In Land We Trust

The conservative approach to preservation.

Sep 5, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 47 • By G. TRACY MEHAN III
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Nature's Keepers

The Remarkable Story of How the Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World

by Bill Birchard

Jossey-Bass, 252 pp., $24.95

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE WOULD NOT be surprised. It took a bit of time to happen, but happen it did. Today, Americans support more than 1,300 land trusts, nonprofit organizations that conserve land--open space, habitat, scenic vistas--primarily through purchase and gift of land and conservation easements. These nongovernmental, voluntary associations of like-minded citizens have protected more than 6.2 million acres, an area twice the size of Connecticut, according to the Land Trust Alliance, which tracks these things. This is a 226 percent increase over the 1.9 million acres protected in 1990.

Tocqueville, one Frenchman who will never be out of favor in this country, recognized that

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.

He noted how this was a uniquely American predisposition: "Whenever at the head of some new undertaking," he wrote, "you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association." The first land trust was established in 1891 in Massachusetts, by landscape architect Charles Eliot, to preserve 20 acres of woodland. By 1950 there were still only 53 land trusts operating in 26 states. Today, similar grass-roots organizations protect land in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The growth in the number of these private institutions is due, in part, to the nation's increasing prosperity and the rise of the original conservation movement and modern environmentalism. It is also a reaction to the accelerated pace of development that inevitably accompanies a growing population and a thriving economy. The Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that, between 1997 and 2001, 2.2 million acres were developed. Yet the Land Trust Alliance's most recent census of land trusts reports that, from 1990 to 2000, local and regional trusts conserved open space at a rate of about 500,000 acres per year.

The Little Traverse Conservancy, in northwest Michigan, is an example of this brand of local stewardship. It focuses on the area surrounding the bay of the same name on Lake Michigan. Since 1972, it has protected 22,400 acres and 67 miles of lake and stream frontage for public use and enjoyment, natural beauty, and resources protection. Recently, the Conservancy acquired a 200-acre parcel with a mile and a quarter of river front on both sides of the Pigeon River, a "blue ribbon" trout habitat with deep pools.

Conservationists have extended the trust concept to water in the drought-prone West, where maintaining minimum stream flows for fish, wildlife, and plants is a daunting task. In 1993, the Oregon Water Trust began buying and transferring valuable rights to water for the purpose of maintaining streamflows. Donors such as the Orvis Company support its work. Other states have emulated this example as a cooperative, voluntary means of reconciling traditional Western water law ("First in time, first in right") with conservation objectives.

The Nature Conservancy, incorporated in 1951 as a nonprofit entity and successor to the Ecologists Union, is the Ohio-class boomer of land trusts and conservancies. Starting out as a shoestring outfit on a corner along K Street in Washington, with modest offices over a prosthetics shop, it has become a gigantic organization with a commanding presence in worldwide conservation. It is now the largest environmental group in the world, bringing in over $800 million each year. It employs 3,450 people operating from 400 offices in 50 states and 28 countries. It protects more than a million acres of land a year, for a total of 120 million acres to date. And it has 1,500 trustees of boards in each of the states, and one million members and supporters.