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

by Jon Christensen, Jenny Rempel and Judee Burr

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.

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