Land trusts thrive despite, and because of, the Great Recession

  • The Koopman Ranch was protected in a conservation easement brookered by the California Rangeland Trust

    California Beef Council

The Great Recession, it turns out, may have been good for one thing in the West: private land conservation. From the tiny Orient Land Trust in Colorado's San Luis Valley, which has nearly doubled its holdings to 2,260 acres, to the 138,041 acres of ranchland protected by the California Rangeland Trust over the last five years, statewide and local land trusts in the West have done better than ever recently, even as many environmental advocacy groups continue to trim budgets and federal funding for conservation falters.

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which agencies rely on to acquire valuable private lands, suffered a 38 percent cut and protected just over 500,000 acres over the last five years. During the same period, private nonprofit land trusts protected 20 times as much undeveloped land -- 10 million acres nationwide, according to data in a new census of 1,700 land trusts in the national Land Trust Alliance.

Land trusts also grew in other ways, including a 19 percent increase in paid employees and contractors, a 36 percent increase in operating budgets, a 70 percent increase in volunteer numbers, and a near tripling of long-term endowments.

Land trusts protect land by either buying it outright or paying for a conservation easement, which restricts or removes the landowner's right to develop open land. Landowners can also donate property and easements and then receive a break on their income taxes from the federal government and some state governments. The latest gains bring the total area protected by the nation's land trusts to 47 million acres -- more than twice the area covered by all of the national parks in the Lower 48 states.

In fact, private land conservation is now shaping the future of much of the West as decisively as development (see charts below, page 5). Land that is protected by conservation easements or bought by land trusts is legally required to be protected in perpetuity. And in recent years, local land trusts have been "saving more land than is lost to development," says Rand Wentworth, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance. That pattern was apparent in the alliance's last census five years ago, when new conservation barely edged out new development nationwide and in the West. It became much more dramatic during the recession, as new housing construction crashed and conservation efforts in most states continued to grow.

This trend is particularly strong in the Western states, where statewide and local land trusts conserved 2.6 million acres between 2005 and 2010, 30 percent more than they did from 2000 to 2005. These trends put California, Colorado and Montana among the top five states nationwide in total private land conserved. Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming made large gains compared to the previous period. And in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, so much more rural land is now being conserved than is being developed that it seems that much of their open land will likely remain undeveloped. In other states, such as Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, however, open land still appears more likely to be developed.

The recession presented land trusts with some great opportunities in recent years, as development stalled, and prime lands were available at distress-sale prices. But most of the growth has come through conservation easements, which are becoming ever more popular because they allow land trusts to protect land at an even lower price. "You pay 40 to 50 percent of the fee value of the land without any management costs," explains Nita Vail, executive director of the rancher-led California Rangeland Trust. That's because the landowners continue to own and manage their lands for grazing, agriculture, or timber.

These "working landscapes" -- ranches, farms and timberlands -- are now a priority for the majority of land trusts nationwide, according to the Land Trust Alliance survey. From the Malpai Borderlands Group on the border of Arizona and New Mexico to the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana, local collaborative efforts and agricultural land trusts have spurred community-based, watershed and landscape-scale conservation efforts around the West, says Jamie Williams, director of landscape conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Boulder, Colo. "That's been inspiring," Williams says. "So it's not surprising the statistics would support that trend."

Vail also attributes much of the growth in statewide and local conservation efforts to the maturation of new agricultural land trusts, led by farmers and ranchers, that have sprung up all around the West. Her 13-year-old organization has grown from a volunteer staff of two to a professional staff of 10 in recent years, she says. The organization was "very fortunate to have projects in the pipeline" during the recession. In the past five years, the California Rangeland Trust doubled the amount of ranchland it protects through easements, and this year, it's on pace to keep up that rate of success.

Whether the blazing growth of private conservation in the West will continue unabated is unclear, though. The recession may yet have lagging effects. Like her colleagues around the country, Vail worries about the loss of generous tax incentives for conservation easement donations, which are set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts to renew them.

Jamie Williams also worries about the decline in federal funding for conservation. While land trusts have more than filled the gap, he says collaborative, large-scale efforts like the Blackfoot Challenge often depend on federal, state and local public funds to provide crucial initial incentive to bring private donors to the table to continue to get big deals done. "If that funding is not there," he says, "it could damage community efforts in the West."

But, he adds: "One thing we have seen is whether you're in a boom or bust, the communities where we work have the same resolve to sustain places and they keep finding ways to get it done. And that's what's so impressive."

Jon Christensen is the executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University; Jenny Rempel and Judee Burr are researchers at the Center.

Daniel Dunn
Daniel Dunn says:
Dec 14, 2011 12:01 PM
Does the land remain private? Or does some sort of "trust" control the land? Can we as the general public access that land for recreation? Can whomever created the conservation easement continue to live/work there. Is much of the converted land really just a "rich" person's playground.
Thanks very much, I enjoyed the article and really am just trying to learn about this stuff.
Megan Drimal
Megan Drimal says:
Dec 14, 2011 10:21 PM
Daniel, I think the answers to your questions will vary depending on the place, but for agri easements ("working landscapes") referenced in the article, these lands continue to be lived on and worked. I'm familiar with a couple of projects (one in MT and one in CO) that allow public access, though not for hunting. I'd personally like to see our lives integrated with these lands as much as possible...I'm tired of museums. There's a nice collection of essays by Tom Butler, Wildlands Philanthropy, that documents a glimpse of the movement. This is a coffee table book with wonderful photos. Can be purchased at Hope that helps.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Dec 15, 2011 06:55 AM
Playgrounds for rich people who don't have to work. Often the land is locked away forever. The reason purchases are accelerating is because the 1% have experienced increased income during this depression. Being a liberal I'd rather the Federal Government owned the land on behalf of us all. Maybe we can tax them out of existence.
Daniel Dunn
Daniel Dunn says:
Dec 15, 2011 08:23 AM
Robb & Megan, thanks for your answers. I too wished that the Govt. owned the land, while the donating family could continue to live there, but we could all go explore it and take photos of it. Thanks!
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye says:
Dec 15, 2011 09:19 AM
Remember that land protected from residential or commercial development by conservation easements serves may public purposes even if on-the-ground recreational use isn't an option. Water quality, open space viewsheds, agricultural land use, and wildlife habitat are all protected for our benefit, and without government ownership of more land.
Norman Benson
Norman Benson says:
Dec 16, 2011 08:17 AM
Questions remain. Is "land protected from residential or commercial development by conservation easements" serving an environmental purpose? Agriculture is arguably one of the most disruptive activities humans can conduct on land. While "working landscapes" may be politically correct, they may not be environmentally correct and are a form of "environmental correctness." For a fuller argument see:[…]/
Tim Baker
Tim Baker says:
Dec 16, 2011 08:46 AM
Norman, I may be missing some part of your argument because I didn't visit your website, but exactly how do you imagine humans can meet their needs without working landscapes? Last time I checked, humans had not yet evolved photosynthesis and still rely on plants to convert sunlight to physical material to consume.

Conservation easements may not be perfect in every case but the larger trend does help obviate one of the most pernicious attacks on native biodiversity, namely habitat fragmentation.
Norman Benson
Norman Benson says:
Dec 16, 2011 09:43 AM
Tim, your quite right. We have not progress beyond the need to use photosynthesis. Although, I went to Humboldt State and we did grow moss on our backs.

I certainly do not want to give you the impression that I think there is a perfect solution (whether it be market-driven, government mandated or mixed enterprise) to our environmental needs for open space. On the contrary, compromises must be found. No right and perfect answer exists; only "good enough" exists.

My views on this issue have shifted from a couple of years ago. Then, I would have thought allowing ranching and farming families to stay in business and ostensibly ward off urban encroachment would have been a good thing. Additionally, they are my neighbors and as such they hold a special place in my heart. Now, I’m not as certain, at least from an ecologic or economic vantage point, which I elaborate at the website.

What impresses me about the "working landscapes” solution is that it is neither government mandated nor is it funded by tax dollars (except to the degree that land trusts are tax-exempt as 501.C.3s). Farmers and/or ranchers who agree to a land trust’s requirements to maintain a working landscape bolster the land’s economic production.

What concerns me regarding “working landscapes” is that agriculture is arguably the most ecologically disruptive activities we humans engage in. There is no question that we are better off due to the invention of agriculture. Yet, we have become more efficient at growing food and fiber which means fewer acres are needed to grow food per capita. The upshot then is, saving a ranch or farm may not be our wisest course of action and freeing the land up for other uses (even urbanization) may actually be beneficial. As a result, working landscapes may not be better for our environment than urban development.

Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen says:
Dec 16, 2011 11:52 AM
I'm delighted to see the questions and answers and further questions raised by all of you. Our hope was that this analysis of trends in conservation by land trusts in the West would prove a wide angle view of a phenomenon that we often see piece by piece, parcel by parcel. We also hoped that it would stimulate a conversation about private lands conservation prospects and priorities and what land trusts are providing and producing for landowners and communities, human and natural, in the West. Thanks for joining the conversation!
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye says:
Dec 16, 2011 03:18 PM
To address Mr. Benson's concerns: I worked for a land trust in Montana for several years, and specific "best practices" were always enumerated in the easement documents when agricultural use existed. Then the land trust monitored the eased land to be sure the agreed-upon practices were being implemented (i.e., protection of riparian areas from livestock; streambank rehabilitation; maintenance of wildlife corridors or habitat, wildlife-friendly fences, etc.) so that continued agricultural use would not degrade the land. I saw absolutely no downside, and thousands of acres have been protected. Easements have been critical in preserving wildlife winter habitat, maintaining water quality, and reducing the historical trend that allowed proliferation of homes in the "wildland interface" where forest fires are a real threat every summer.
Megan Drimal
Megan Drimal says:
Dec 16, 2011 04:38 PM
I did visit your site, Norman, and read your piece. You are the first I know to make this argument against working landscapes...your thinking is certainly provocative and I will give this more thought. I wonder what you think of suburbs?

You do not make any reference to Permaculture as an agricultural practice that does not remove everything and is certainly not the most ecologically disruptive activity humans engage in. There are many strides being made in agriculture, including predator friendly certification.

And, if one sees that humans are part of an ecological system (we certainly have the brains to participate as such), then, like all animals, we have a role to play and this role need not be seen as a disruption. The argument that working landscapes might better be turned into cities based on our ability to produce more food per acre seems to miss the point that in forcing higher yields per acre, we have turned agriculture into a "fatal harvest" (See Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture...oh I do love those coffee table books with big pictures).

Norman, your argument has so many holes in it, I am not quite sure where to begin. I guess, only to say that, for me, the local food movement is part of a movement toward local economies, which are healthier for human communities and the planet. The global market is built on oil and oil is running out. As far as I know, there's nothing with quite the same muscle to replace it.

Mine is not romanticism, it is a sense that humans need to participate in the cycle of birth and death (farming and ranching provide this experience daily) to understand that life is a cycle...death is necessary and not to be avoided at all costs. Things naturally die that other things may be born. We must be reminded regularly of the birth and death in living to realize that money cannot buy life. Plastic and its partners, do not participate in this cycle as all things ought to.

Back to my point though, we need people working landscapes so that we have a few among us at least who realize what it means to participate in a cycle we cannot separate ourselves from. If we go to "wild landscapes" only as visitors, we perpetuate a severance from nature that has so far resulted in ecological catastrophe. Besides, I turn into a freak when I live in the city...absolutely and utterly crazed. If I had the money, I'd buy land and keep it working.
Norman Benson
Norman Benson says:
Dec 16, 2011 06:00 PM
Megan, thank you for visiting my site. I appreciate your opinion, though I disagree with it completely. Especially your summary, "we perpetuate a severance from nature that has so far resulted in ecological catastrophe."

Are we to understand that the ecological disaster is: “The water is polluted and the air is worse. We’re washing away topsoil from our farmland; and what we aren’t washing away, we’re paving over. The more technology we manufacture, the less livable becomes our world. Humans produce too many babies. Our exploding population increases poverty and misery and decreases habitat for every other living thing that we share this tiny and fragile world with.”

The only thing is, we have heard versions of this elegiac lament for thousands of generations. Consider this second-century quote from the early-Christian writer, Tertullian, “We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us…”

This is not to say that, collectively, we do not affect our world significantly--we do--in good and bad ways. I am only saying that our impact is decreasing due to our acquisitiveness through commerce.

You see, the more we trade goods and services, the more we trade ideas as well. Matt Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist,” says ideas “have sex.” Like DNA recombining to make unique individuals, bits of ideas cross-fertilize with others to make better ways of doing things. “In a nutshell,” Ridley says, “the most sustainable thing we can do, and the best for the planet, is to accelerate technological change and economic growth.”

It will be technological change (caused by trade) that makes the world more habitable for all its species, and not a decision to spend less on luxuries. History bears this out.

Land was freed up from agricultural production not by eating less meat, but by using machines for farming (since machines don’t need pasture). It was the discovery of how to use coal, instead of wood, to power machines that saved forests, not from deciding to use less wood. More land was freed up by making each acre more productive via synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not by fasting once a week. Whales were saved from extinction, not by lowering the amount of whale oil one bought, but by people buying the newer and more affordable kerosene (derived from coal) for lighting. Even habitats can benefit from trade. According to Susan Hecht writing in the publication, Nature, El Salvador's forests have increased, not shrunk, due to globalization, Salvadoreans working abroad send remittances to relatives so they no longer have to clear forests for subsistence farming.

While logic and Tertullian, Malthus, Ehrlich, and Lester Brown tell us that we will run out of resources very soon, humanity's track record for thousands of generations shows the world has become less polluted and more resilient. Prophets have preached “the end is near” since the dawn of man--they still do. But, far from being the world's executioner, globalization and the consumerism it cultivates, are its salvation.
So, will living simply help save the world? In a word, no.

Living simply will simply not save the world.

But globalization will.
Michael Sojka
Michael Sojka says:
Dec 23, 2011 08:36 AM
Norman - I can understand some of your positions and have thought somewhat along your lines myself. However, I would take a working ranch with no public access over a subdivision any day. Wildlife like birds of prey and other predators can exist much better on a ranch than in a subdivision.
Karen Sweet
Karen Sweet says:
Jan 17, 2012 02:28 PM
I am a rancher in the San Francisco Bay Area who desires to permanently protect the land in private ownership for ALL of its benefits. Loss of private lands available to local farmers and ranchers has changed agriculture and the ag economy, even if they remain working landscapes as stewardship decisions are made by non-agriculturalists. For example, it's common to have 'commuter ranchers' with stocker operations replacing local cow/calf ranchers. Conservation easements are voluntary and negotiated to achieve mutally agreed goals of the landowner and the funder. There is long list of ranchers in CA who want to sell conservation easements and continue to steward those ranches.
Kris Loman
Kris Loman says:
Feb 07, 2012 04:31 PM
Having paper protection in perpetuity sounds wonderful, but who's minding the store? Who's ensuring the easement restrictions and management objectives are being followed 5, 10, 20 years from now? I'm afraid the answer is no one. The tax deduction is an immediate benefit to the land owner but without consequences later if the land is not left ecologically sound. I know of one land bank which is used by its easement holder as a private hunting playground. Who is there to stop him?
Michael Sojka
Michael Sojka says:
Feb 07, 2012 11:00 PM
Kris - I cannot speak for all land trusts but the one I work for and volunteer at takes conservation easement monitoring very seriously. They use GPS coordinates and compasses to take pictures every year at the same location to ensure compliance to easement restrictions. All the owners I have had the pleasure to meet are genuinely trying to meet the requirements of the easements and are not out to "game the system:. Please do not be cynical about these arrangements.
Kris Loman
Kris Loman says:
Feb 08, 2012 12:32 AM
Thank you, Michael. That's reassuring. But what about the ones who aren't so conscientious? A watchdog is needed.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Feb 08, 2012 06:21 AM
Michael who is to say that the requirements of the easements are something I'd like anyway. Maybe it's an easement for meth labs or to exclude anyone not wearing Birkenstocks. I see the whole thing as a tax avoidance scam by 1%ers, only because land can't be sequestered in the Cayman Islands with the rest of the loot.
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye says:
Feb 08, 2012 09:15 AM
Mr. Cadwell, I just can't let your comment pass unanswered. There are five land trusts working in western Montana, and I don't know of a single case where a landowner's primary purpose in creating a conservation easement was to avoid taxes. The landowner has to come up with cash that the land trust sets aside for its future monitoring activities, and many ranchers have a difficult time doing that. A number of Montana counties have passed bond issues, voted on by all registered voters in the counties, so that the whole community can support the creation of conservation easements. The system works, and it wouldn't make sense to discontinue the process just because a few people abuse it.
Michael Sojka
Michael Sojka says:
Feb 08, 2012 09:34 AM
@Kris and @Robb - there may be some kind of abuse of land trusts somewhere, but, from my experience I don't see it. As Wendy stated a little bit on how the money works, the landowners who put conservation easements on their property are committed to this process both economically and emotionally. I do not have long-term experience (multi-generational) to know how this works when the original landowner dies and their heirs take over and the heirs are not committed. However, the easements have value and are owned by the Land Trust. Any system can be abused. Where I live the easements are so well known and the communities are so tight, oversight happens that way in addition to the formal procedures of the Land Trust. There is a certifying process that the National Land Trust Association provides but local land trusts are not required to submit to that certification. There are federal laws that govern the creation and maintenance of conservation easements. Believe me, the local tax assessors and boards of supervisors do not like missing out on their tax money. If they think a landowner is doing something illegal the taxman will be out there in a heartbeat - that is probably your ultimate check and balance.
Kris Loman
Kris Loman says:
Feb 08, 2012 11:04 AM
I'm glad many trusts do work as intended. I wish all communities saw the value of these easements and thus helped to keep them protected. But the NLTA doesn't go out and inspect their certified trusts. I don't know if they even go onsite when the application is made. It's a voluntary system, an honor system. Any conduct complaints have to be signed so that the person making the complaint is put at risk. You have to tie your complaint to specific sections of the trust accreditation guidelines, which means spending a lot of time. Who's going to take that time, and risk their job, to make a complaint that then has to go through multiple layers of review and may end up nowhere?
 Where large amounts of money are involved, I don't trust the honor system.
Norman Benson
Norman Benson says:
Feb 08, 2012 11:33 AM
@Kris, then it seems you'll just have to live with the uncertainty. Our federal lands are used illegally by marijuana growers and neither the National Park Service nor the Forest Service can fully patrol their lands to prevent the trespass. So, your answer appears to have either an existing agency to stretch its personnel further or to create a new agency to monitor. Neither will, nor should, happen.
dennis moroney
dennis moroney says:
Feb 09, 2012 10:08 PM
I am a rancher in Arizona. We have a conservation easement on 960 acres of private land that specifically prohibits real estate development and subdivision, and specifically allows for continued use for livestock grazing. We are required by the terms of the easement to maintain a conservation management plan with the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service. In addition, the land trust which holds the easement inspects the property every year and documents compliance with the terms of the easement. The land is still our private property, and as is often typical in the west, it adjoins other state and federal land that we have permits to graze. The public benefits from the preservation of open space, wildlife habitat, watershed, and use for recreation. Our management goals and practices are very favorable to biodiversity and conservation. We are close to completing another conservation easement on about 1500 acres, and if we can, we will do our best to preserve more after that is complete. We share a boundary on two sides with a property where the previous owner sold his 6500 acres to a developer and it was cut up into 36 acre ranchettes, and sold to investors and speculators, (mostly unseen via the internet). I will die with the satisfaction, that the land we have been able to protect with conservation easements will never be developed and abused in this manner. Along the way, we have been able to provide a way for this land to help feed our local community, and remain relatively wild and natural. I think it's a good thing.
Kris Loman
Kris Loman says:
Feb 10, 2012 12:49 AM
Dennis, you are the epitome of a good steward of the land, and I thank you.