Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Monday, January 31, 2005

Why Are Easements Targeted?

The battle to save conservation easements has begun, but I think it's safe to say the Land Trusts appear to be a bit shell shocked so far. There has been much conversation about the best strategy for fighting back, who should do the fighting and searching for friends in Congress. One overwhelming reaction so far has been, why are easements being targeted? I think I know the answer. Because they're an easy target. Why easy?
For clues, look at the staff summary at the beginning of the Joint Committee Report. First the committee was launched at the request of Senators Charles Grassley and Max Baucus. If you go back and read the Washington Post coverage of the Senate investigation following the Post investigative series on The Nature Conservancy, it's clear that both men were plenty ticked off at a perception that TNC was not being fully forthcoming. Grassley is quoted as saying " "I expect it will become even more clear that reforms to existing law should accompany any new incentives for taxpayers to donate land for conservation." Then the article continues Grassley is sponsor of a bill backed by the Conservancy that passed the Senate earlier this year and which would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in new conservation tax breaks." So Grassley sponsored the bill to expand the tax breaks, then gets embarrassed when the Post comes out with all the reports of abuses.
Among the staff marching orders, you find this paragraph; "Valuation the context of charitable contributions.... are a common source of noncompliance. The report contains several proposals to resolve valuation controversies in a simpler and more administrable way.” Everyone agrees that determining the fair value of easements is subjective, complicated and generally beyond the expertise of the IRS. So given the choice between taking the time intensive steps of codifying some version of the LTA's Land trust standards or just essentially getting rid of easements, the staff chose the easy out. Lose the easements.
Finally, you have a Congress that faces a huge budget deficit with a mandate that it can't raise taxes. What's the only other way to raise money? Close loopholes. The committee claims making the changes to easements can raise 1 billion dollars over 10 years.
So add it all together. 1) A ticked off, embarrassed boss, 2) a search for simplicity and 3) strong, strong pressure to raise revenues without raising taxes = conservation easements as roadkill.
What to do?
The LTA has come out with an outline for a letter to Congress that it suggests be modified by each trust and its supporter and mailed immediately. Interestingly (at least to me) the LTA is the only national trust group that I can find that has even mentioned the report. Not a peep from The Nature Conservancy on its website. (I imagine all the talking is being done behind closed doors)
Also, trusts are being urged to come up with a single page of talking points in support of easements, and get them to their congressional delegation ASAP.
So who should the groups target for help? People with real experience in Washington will know better, but here are my outsider suggestions and guesses.
First, I think a fairly high level group of national leaders should go before Grassley and Baucus, kowtow on the floor and beg forgiveness. If those two remain truly angry, they've probably got the muscle to get this one through, no matter how many letters are written.
Second, target the committees on each side. In the Senate, it's the Finance committee, and I'm guessing this is the right subcommittee.

Jon Kyl, AZ, Chairman
James M. Jeffords, VT, Ranking Member
Trent Lott, MS
Orrin Hatch, UT
Olympia J. Snowe, ME
Mike Crapo, ID
Craig Thomas, WY
Rick Santorum, PA
Max Baucus, MT
Kent Conrad, ND
Blanche L. Lincoln, AR
Charles Schumer, NY

Kyl, Jeffords and Snowe might be sympathetic ears. Snowe particularly because Maine is a huge Land Trust state.

The House side is a little more difficult to figure, because as I read it, the subcommittees get whatever the Chairman decides they should have. The Ways and Means chairman is Bill Thomas (R) from Bakersfield, CA. Agriculture is big there, so Farm Trusts might have some pull with him. Committee member Thomas Reynolds (R) NY has been mentioned as possibly sympathetic. Other sympathetics might be Mark Foley (R) FL, Nancy Johnson (R) CT and Bob Beauprez (R) CO. If anyone knows of others, please speak up.

Finally, this really does have to be the wake-up call for trusts to do everything they can to stop all easement abuses. In fact, the horse may be out of the barn on this one. The next few months will tell.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Easements in Action

Jon Christensen at The Uneasy Chair links to an excellent article he wrote a year ago for High Country News. Jon notes his research showed that while easement deductibility wasn't the driving force behind donations, it played a big role in making the deals work financially. Check out the article for the real world value of easements.

The "Somebody Else's Money" Argument

Here's another nice rebuttal from Professor McLaughlin's paper.
"“Since government agencies and land trusts are in effect, spending someone else’s money to acquire easements donated under 170(h), they might be expected to exercise less care in the selection of donated easements than in the selection of easements they purchase directly. That concern should not be overstated, however, because government agencies and land trusts accepting easement donations have a significant financial incentive to be selective and accept only those easements that best advance their particular land protection goals. Unlike the acceptance of a cash donation, the acceptance of an easement donation confers no economic benefit upon a government agency or land trust. Instead, an easement represents a liability to the accepting agency or land trust because it entails ongoing and sometines costly monitoring and enforcement responsibilities, which typically must be undertaken on a very limited budget.” (page 62, b)

The "They'd do it anyway" argument

A big part of the argument of the Joint Congressional report revolves around tax breaks given to owners of historic homes for maintaining the house facades. In fact, conservation easements aren't discussed nearly as much as facades. The report contends that the owners of these historic homes shouldn't be rewarded for buying houses that they would probably buy anyway. Then that logic is then transferred to donors of conservation easements.... saying in essence they'd make the donations whether they got a tax break anyway, so why give them a break?
Have established that I'm not a tax attorney, I'd like to rely on the rebuttal for that argument to come from someone who IS a tax attorney. Nancy A. McLaughlin is an associate professor of law at the University of Utah. She has published what is probably the most recent scholarly study of the impact of tax incentives on conservation easements. You can find it on her law school bio page. The report was published in "Ecology Law Quarterly" and titled "Increasing the Tax Incentives for Conservation Easement Donations - A Responsible Approach". I'm halfway through it so far, and found this rebuttal to the committee's facade argument.
"“the Treasury has argued that a landowner who has no desire to sell or develop his land gives up little or nothing by donating an easement. However that argument ignores both the economic and practical realities of an easement donation..... the market and transaction costs associated with an easement donation typically will be quite high. In addition, the significant reduction in the value of land that results from an easement donation is not reversible should the landowner have a change in fortunes, will have an adverse impact on the landowner’s ability to borrow against the value of the land, and will reduce either the proceeds the landowner will receive on a subsequent sale of the land or the value of the assets the landowner is able to transfer at death. Moreover, every easement donation involves a permanent loss of some autonomy with respect to the use and management of the encumbered land.”
I think there's no doubt that most people who donate conservation easements are motivated by their love of the land, and their wish to preserve its character. But it comes at a cost, and unless there's some tax benefit, many important parcels that would otherwise be donated will probably end up being developed.
NOTE: Thanks to all who have dropped me the kind notes about the coverage here. Keep your tips coming!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Worth Less Than a Business Meal

When reading the reasoning given in the Joint Congressional Report, I was struck by argument for only allowing 33% of an assessed value of an easement to be tax deductible. On pages 291 and 292 of the pdf, there's a discussion of precedents for setting an arbitrary value. One is the 50% disallowance of business meal and entertainment expense write-offs. So let me get this straight (again I'm not a tax attorney, nor do I play one on TV). A conservation easement that will satisfy a specific government conservation policy, like say, preventing development that could harm clean water for a nearby city, or preserve a family farm, or protect the ecosystem of an endangered species is LESS important to the public good than a business meal at a three star restaurant?!! TWO THIRDS of the value of the easement is disallowed, but only HALF of the business meal expense is disregarded. Don't get me wrong, I like a tax deductible business meal in a fine restaurant as much as the next guy, but is preserving the business meal more important than preserving wilderness to the american taxpayer? Maybe it is to people in Congress who eat a lot of those tax deductible meals, but I don't think it is to people who think preserving open spaces is pretty important too.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Death of Easements Part 2.

I'm not a tax attorney, so factor that into my reading of the Committee's recommendations to scale back easements. As I read it, the report says, if someone still lives on the land, it shouldn't be eligible for easements, period. And if the easement doesn't address a specific government conservation program., it's not allowed either. And even if it did meet the criteria of satisfying a specific government conservation program, it can only get a tax break equal to 1/3 of the valuation. So if this goes through, the owner of an ecologically fragile chunk of land that would advance the aims of a specific government program now has 2/3's less incentive to donate the easement. Do you think those timber companies that have donated easements in Northern Michigan and the Adirondacks of New York would be as interested if this standard were in effect? And if you have a vacation house on that land, it doesn't matter how important the land is. As long as you're going to live there, you might as well keep the development rights and see what happens.
The whole bit about golf courses and subdivisions getting the breaks smacks of the whole welfare queen driving a cadillac argument. Does it happen? Yes. And the LTA is right to be scrambling to get its tougher code adopted by all trusts. There have been abuses, that is well documented. And I understand the common sense in the argument that the way the law reads now, it's way too easy for land owners and trusts to reach a wink, wink, nod, nod understanding. The goal of keeping the taxpayers from looking like "chumps" as Senator Baucus calls it is laudable. But if this measure goes through, there will no longer be a business reason to sell conservation easements. Keeping fragile land from being developed will simply depend upon the kindness of strangers.
In my short time writing about trusts, I've been concerned about the ubiquity of easements. As a layman, it looked to me that too many trusts used easements too freely. I worried that the abuses were going to come back and bite the trusts. Now it looks like it may kill them. Do we really want land trusts to die?

Death of Easements?

In what could be a crippling or even fatal blow to many land trusts, a joint congressional committee has essentially recommended doing away with or dramatically reducing the tax breaks for conservation easements. (Thanks to Tom at Sphere for the heads up.)
The full report can be found at
Here's the text of the Washington Post article.
Panel Advises Ending Tax Breaks for Easements
By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page A12
An influential joint congressional committee recommended yesterday that lawmakers do away with income tax breaks available to homeowners who give charitable organizations easements that restrict changes to personal residences or surrounding land.
Over the next decade, the reforms would save the U.S. Treasury $1 billion, according to a staff report released by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.
The proposal goes well beyond previously announced plans for the reform of what are known as "historic facade easements" and "conservation easements." The recommendations are aimed at ending tax breaks originally designed to preserve historic buildings and the environment.
Today, the public benefit of such easements often is "tenuous and speculative," and donors who live on site can hamper preservation, the report said. The estimated cash values of the easements are often incorrect and can result in unwarranted tax breaks, it added.
"The proposal eliminates the need to assess valuation, conservation benefits, and private benefits with respect to a large group of transactions that often provide questionable or limited public benefits," the report said.
The recommendations come in response to a series of investigative reports published over the past two years in The Washington Post. The articles showed that the number of tax breaks associated with the easements was skyrocketing and that the deductions often appeared unwarranted. The benefits flowed primarily to the wealthy and often went to insiders at the charitable organizations charged with policing the development restrictions imposed by the easements.
After The Post published a series in December that revealed tremendous growth in tax breaks associated with easements on the facades of historic houses, several U.S. senators called for changes, and a number of organizations that promoted the transactions suspended solicitations of new donations. Previous articles led the Nature Conservancy, the world's largest environmental group, to make a number of reforms, including banning a variety of easement deals that the charity had conducted with its own trustees.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who serves as chairman of both the joint committee and the Senate Finance Committee, praised the report's recommendations.
"It's clear we need significant reform in this area, and the Joint Tax proposals light the way for how we might be able to accomplish that," Grassley said.
The joint committee's past recommendations often have been adopted wholesale by committees in the House and Senate. For example, Congress enacted a number of reforms recommended in the wake of the Enron scandal, Grassley said.
The easement proposals are part of a broad plan outlined in the report to curtail tax loopholes and save the U.S. Treasury nearly $400 billion. The report was developed at the request of Grassley and the Finance Committee's ranking Democrat, Max Baucus of Montana.
In the case of easements, tax deductions would be eliminated for all buildings and tracts of land that could be used as personal residences. The report said such donors generally do not plan changes to their houses or surrounding land anyway because they were attracted by the historic or scenic nature of the properties.
"The present charitable deduction regime . . . provides a windfall to those taxpayers who grant an easement," the report said. "For example, a person who purchases a residence in a historic district that has homes that were designed and constructed in a particular period and with a particular architectural style generally does not acquire the home with the intention of altering the exterior."
For historic buildings not used as residences, the report recommends slashing the amount that may be written off from 100 percent of the easement's estimated cash value to 33 percent. The tax deduction would be capped at 5 percent of the building's total market value.
For an easement on open land not used as a home site, the report also recommends cutting the amount that may be deducted from 100 percent of the easement's value to 33 percent. Such easements would qualify for tax breaks only if the donor could prove that the easement's restrictions clearly benefited a specific government conservation program.
Appraisals setting the values of easements would have to be completed by appraisers who met a series of new standards, including ethics training.
Those changes would probably end a variety of increasingly popular practices, such as using easement tax breaks to finance the development of subdivisions and golf courses, tax experts said. In those cases, the easements typically have restricted development on wetlands and other areas that were unsuitable for building anyway.
In a statement on the full report, Baucus said: "Law-abiding taxpayers don't want to feel like chumps and they shouldn't have to wonder whether their government is fairly and effectively administering the tax laws. Up to this point, the government's response to combating noncompliance has not been commensurate with the serious nature of the problem. That needs to change."

This really does sound like a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There's no doubt there have been abuses, but this prescription could be fatal to most land trusts. The Land Trust Alliance is already sounding the alarm.

Rand Wentworth has written an open letter to the trusts asking for immediate action. Here's an excerpt...

"The Joint Committee's work is a report, and only that. It is not legislation. But it is a gun pointed right at the deductibility of conservation donations. If your Senators and Representatives don't know how important these donations are to you and your community, they could well turn to this report's recommendations as a good way to reduce the deficit or fund some other priority.

We all know how important the deductibility of land and easement donations has been to the success and growth of land trusts. But we can't take the status quo for granted. The tax benefits for conservation are at dire risk if policymakers believe that they are being abused. LTA is developing a plan and a strong coalition to stop these proposals from becoming law, but our success will depend on land trusts demonstrating that they are capable of self-regulation. If tax deductions are important for your work, we need your help to:

* Commit to implementing and demonstrating compliance with Land Trust Standards and Practices;
* Help LTA consider what other forms of self-regulation would be appropriate for land trusts;
* Involve your Senators and Representatives in the work of your land trust so that they know the importance of what we are doing; and,
* Send a message to your Senators and Representatives about the Joint Committee proposal. We will post a draft message on our website later today on our public web site at

So far, no response has posted by The Nature Conservancy.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

From the Country to the City

The Malpai Borderlands Group was the subject of a good story on NPR's Morning Edition today. The story (media player required) highlights the pioneering partnership between ranchers and conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy in the borderlands of southern Arizona and New Mexico. A big part of the story is a discussion of the "radical center" that we've talked about in connection with groups like the Quivira Coalition. The lessons learned from Malpai are being spread across the country, including the concept of grass banks. Whenever writing about this attempt to find common ground, I'm always reminded of the song from "Oklahoma" about ranchers and the farmers being friends, only this time we're singing about the ranchers and enviros.
Speaking of NPR, while listening on the way into work this morning, I heard an 'underwritten" (don't call 'em ads) traffic report by the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It's a great way to build name recognition at a low cost. You can do the same thing with country radio in rural areas. Pay for a short sponsorship of weather, or the ag report. You don't need a :30 second ad, and repeated exposure will quickly build name recognition.
Finally, the Christian Science Monitor highlights a plan to build a ring of parks and green space around central Atlanta. The Trust for Public Land is one of the leaders in the effort. The parks will fill in brownfields, while building a park ring between the city and the suburbs. One added benefit.... all that new green will lower summer temperatures in the city. Soon the nickname may no longer be Hotlanta. Coolanta, anyone?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Green space, Republican-style

The Atlanta Journal Constitution(reg. req.) calls it a Republican-style green space program, but whatever you call it, a plan by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue would create a big chunk of money for conservation in the peach state. The proposal would create a $100 million fund from existing state funds and from private donations. According the the A.P., "The plan will create a trust fund and a revolving loan fund which local governments can use to protect lands which are important for recreational, cultural, environmental or other reasons. The money would enable governments to buy the lands outright or to purchase a conservation easement which, while leaving the property in private hands, would effectively bar its development for commercial or other purposes. Perdue called the proposal "an investment in our future" and hailed it as "more far-reaching than any previous conservation efforts." He said it "encourages creative partnerships that will allow us to stretch our conservation dollars further."
The plan calls for heavy use of conservation easements. One red flag that I see popping up already is that the measure won't necessarily require public access for private lands that sell their development rights. That's been a big issue for the IRS in determining the value of the easement. Farmers and timber companies could sell their development rights, but continue to work their property as before. There is no mention on whether there would be requirements to meet sustainable harvest certifications as in other such deals. In the competition for the funds, priority will be given to projects that protect ecologically important tracts. Also, partnerships are important... the more entities involved in protecting a particular parcel will give it a leg up on competing bids. That could act as a check to make sure sweetheart deals with individuals or corporations are minimized. One interesting feature is that taxpayers will be given the option of donating a portion of their income tax return to the fund.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Let The Voters Decide

The people of Newfields, New Hampshire have a choice to make in March. Authorize $1.5 million dollars in bonds to conserve 340 acres, or allow a new development that will increase the size of the town by 20%. Whether they see growth as a positive or negative is completely up to them. The choice comes because of a complex and hush-hush deal between town leaders, the federal government, the Rockingham land trust and land owners. It all played out while a developer was actively moving ahead with plans to lock up the property. The owners quietly agreed to sell the property at a below market price to the town if the land was conserved, otherwise it will go at full price to the developer. Some money has been promised, but the linchpin will be the $1.5 million in bonds. Voters get the final choice.
Another public-private partnership has resulted in 2,600 acres near Asheville, N.C. being set aside. The property was to be the site of a power plant until the owner, Progress Energy decided the plant wasn't needed. Most of the $10.2 million dollar deal came from the state of North Carolina, with $1 million coming from the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
Professional conservationists still have until Feb 1st to sign up for a month long paid fellowship to the Kinship Conservation Institute in Bozeman, MT. The fellowship will allow you to spend a month working on an environmental problem your organization has and come up with a market based solution. 18 slots are available, and it comes with a $4500 stipend. Check it out on their website.
And finally, I've added another link in my Nature's Notes. Check out Robert Bryce/Muckraker. Robert is an old friend of mine (we edited the high school paper together) and has been writing about the environment and politics since the days when computers were called typewriters. I found him again with his latest article in Slate, on the Green Neocons. Read the article and buy one of his books. You won't be sorry.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Outing the Inholdings

In many wilderness areas of the United States are pieces of land called inholdings. Grandfathered patches that were privately owned before the public area around it was designated. Add them all together, and they equal well over a million acres nestled inside federal and state lands. 1300 acres of inholding in the middle of the Trinity Alps Wilderness of Northern California will soon be absorbed into the federal land, thanks to a $3 million loan, and collaboration between the Forest Service and the Wilderness Land Trust. The deal is outlined in this article in the Redding Record Searchlight (reg. req.). For those who don't want to register, here's the meat of the article.

"For most wilderness lands, the rules are rigid: No development, no road building, no vehicle access.
But many private lands within wilderness areas date to the 19th century, long before protections were established. Owners of these properties have the same rights with their land as they would anywhere else.
"We have no say as to what they do with their property," Frey said. "They could log it. They could build a ski lodge."
And the Forest Service would be "almost obligated" to allow roads to be built through the wilderness to access the private in-holdings, he said.
In this case, timber company Siller Brothers Inc. and the Forest Service had negotiated the sale for decades, but long clashed over the value, Frey said.
The situation changed when the company, which has an office in Anderson, decided to reconsolidate its holdings, Frey said.
Enter Wilderness Land Trust, a group with the sole purpose of buying private wilderness lands from willing sellers, and transferring them to the public.
After a year of negotiation, the trust purchased Siller's land. It took two more years before the Forest Service could muster enough money from timber receipts to acquire the land from the trust.
The Carbondale, Colo.-based trust paid for the deal with a loan from a source that asked to remain anonymous, said the trust's president, Reid Haughey. The source will be paid back with the money from the Forest Service, he said.
Using a third party like the wilderness trust often helps transfers move along faster, Haughey said.
"If it were simple to sell land to the United States, we wouldn't have a purpose," he said"

The Wilderness Land Trust has a stated ten year goal of eliminating inholdings in existing Wilderness areas. It also wants to expand to eliminate inholdings in future proposed wilderness areas under active consideration. The Trust says it has already purchased and transfered 200 parcels of inholdings in seven western states. It has recently expanded from its home office in Carbondale, Colorado to add offices in San Francisco and Seattle.

And a Tennesse note... Robbie Hassler of Pickett county has donated the conservation easement for her 155 acre farm to the Land Trust For Tennessee, and she wants her friends to do the same. The Trust was founded by current Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen when he was mayor of Nashville. Who knew our governor was a Land Trust fan?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Bringing a knife to a gun fight

I'm reminded of the old saying about don't bring a knife to a gun fight, or something along those lines, as I continue the exchange with Gary Jones. In this case I would be the one with the knife. Gary still takes great exception to my choice of articles to laud, but interestingly I think we both believe in ultimately the same thing, even if we do get there from different directions. Gary's summation is this... "To succeed modern environmentalism must distance itself from politics and focus on governance. Each political group has environmental objectives that can benefit from policy input by those who have given special attention to the whole subject. Facing the inherent conflicts between the needs of all the community and the places they inhabit and seeking creative ways to dynamically balance those needs is a worthy task and will result over time as political power changes hands in the greatest progress, the healthiest communities and environments, and reclaim environmentalism from the trash heap". I think Gary and I define politics a bit differently. To me, politics ultimately is the act of "seeking creative ways to dynamically balance those needs." The act of balancing, the art of listening, the work to find common ground is what interests me. I'm not interested in the politics that seeks to build coalitions only to retain or gain power. I'm interested in toning down the demonization, and increasing the understanding. That's a big reason why I developed the interest in land trusts. I think they are a way, that if used carefully, can balance the inherent tension between land ownership and wild places, between a need for houses and jobs and raw materials, and the need for nature to flourish. Yes, choices have to made. Absolutes may need compromise. But if we work to find that good, common ground we can make the greatest progress, and build the healthiest communities and environment.
Ok, enough of the philosophical yammering, I am in way over my head. Tomorrow I'm back with more postings on the doings in the world of Land Trusts. Gary, thank you for the debate. May I have my knife back?

Common Ground

I've been following the debate over "Is Environmentalism Dead" with some interest. It's like the self-examination (or is it self-flagellation) going on inside the Democratic Party right now. Both debates are about the future, about core values, and about tactics. But they also seem to be over the old grade school question 'why don't they like me?"
This little spurt of philosophic musing is spurred by an exchange with Gary Jones of Crumbtrail fame at his "other" blog Muck and Mystery. I think it's safe to say that Gary isn't as impressed by Courtney White's essay on conservation in the West as I am. I'll let you read Gary's reasoning for yourself.
While Gary disagrees with me, I think Courtney White is onto something here that people who care about the environment or the Democratic party for that matter should pay attention to. Environmentalism isn't dead, Environmental Orthodoxy is dead. Environmental deafness is dead. You want to matter? Don't shut out the people who have been arbitrarily defined as "those people". Ranchers. Hunters. SUV drivers. Find the common ground.
Here's another example of what I'm talking about. Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly writes about efforts to stop the Bonneville Power Authority from shutting off the summertime spilling of water through Columbia River dams to assist downstream migration of young salmon. The move was stopped by an coalition of groups that had previously not worked together. But they found the common ground to make their voices heard. As opposed to the old style of protesting that does more long term harm than good.

"Yesterday, looking up at the TV screen from fish studies, I was repelled to hear radicals chant -- "Hey, Bush, we know you! Your Daddy was a killer, too!" -- as the president's limo passed by. The language of left-wing protesters, aired on national TV, was reminiscent of some e-mails sent by extreme right-wing talk radio fans.
Did this indulgent, vile protest win any friends or allies? It didn't, aside from perhaps a private cheer from Bush strategist Karl Rove.
As well, what good was done by the rally at Seattle Central Community College, the inevitable march downtown and the predictable oratory? It's happened so often that Pine Street deserves a new name: "Boulevard of Left-Wing Bluster."
The only potentially effective strategy is the kind of banding together witnessed on the Columbia River. Sport, commercial and Indian fisher folk have been at one another's throats for years. Lately, though, they've defended common ground.
Street-corner rhetoric won't stop rollbacks in environmental protection, or slicing and dicing of the social safety net that Franklin D. Roosevelt began to erect 72 years ago.
But public opinion can give pause to even the most headstrong public official."

Progress is made by stopping the shouting, starting to listen, and realizing there is more than one valid way to see the world. Isolated tribes become strong nations by getting off their mountaintops and finding the common ground.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Weekend reading

Here's a great essay, courtesy of Tidepool. It's from Courtney White of the Quivira Coalition. I think he nails the philosophy for anyone working in private conservation. Here's the beginning.

"Looking back over the past century, the greatest shortcoming of the conservation movement in the American West has been its near-total failure to devise a strategy for privately owned land in the region.

By any yardstick -- watershed acres, animal species, ecological processes -- conservation success on private land has been small. While many environmentalists correctly note that half of the West is publicly owned and thus held in trust for the public good, they rarely mention the other part of that equation: Half of the West is in private hands.

This is significant because, as many researchers have written, private lands contain the most productive soils, are located at lower elevations and often include key riparian areas. Wildlife biologist Rick Knight, who teaches at Colorado State University, put it this way: "We will not be able to sustain native biodiversity in the Mountain West by relying merely on protected areas. Future conservation efforts to protect this region's natural heritage will require closer attention being paid to the role of private lands."

But how? The tactics of demonization, litigation, regulation and pressure politics may be effective on public lands -- though to a diminishing degree these days -- but they're essentially useless on private land."

Environmentalism isn't dead, folks. Not as long as we remember that people, including land owners, are part of the environment too.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Free Money

President Bush feels so good about his inauguration today, that he wants to give you money to protect the environment. That's what the official government press release says (mostly), so it can't be wrong.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced it is seeking proposals for private lands conservation funding through its Private Stewardship Grants Program. About $6.5 million is available FY 2005 through this grant program to support on-the-ground conservation efforts on private lands.

As envisioned by President Bush, this program provides Federal grants on a competitive basis to individuals and groups engaged in voluntary conservation efforts on private lands that benefit imperiled species including federally listed endangered or threatened species as well as proposed, candidate and other at-risk species. Landowners and their partners may submit proposals directly to the Service for funding to support those efforts.

For more information, go to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website.

An area that was supposed to be a windmill field is instead the latest aquisition by the Solano Land Trust in California. The trust has closed on 2300 acres south of Fairfield between Sacramento and San Francisco. Pacific Gas & Electric had abandoned plans for the windmill site.

Finally, thanks to New Environmentalism.Org for making Nature Noted the Featured Blog. It's nice to be featured.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

My First Clarification

Genie Lester of TNC would like me to clarify my blog about the $12 million dollar gift from Caterpillar and the Great Rivers Partnership. The Great Rivers Center is only one part of the partnership, and not all the money will go to the Center. So noted.
Also the Sierra Nevada Conservancy is still just a newborn, and more money may be headed its way. Two California Assemblymen have introduced legislation to authorize a conservancy license plate, that could bring in $2 million a year. Why more conservancies and trusts don't get their own plates is a mystery to me. Many states have the programs, and it has the potential to be not only a great fundraiser, but a great advertising tool as well.
And in non trust news, I had earlier linked to some very cool NASA pictures of a giant iceberg about to crash into another huge chunk of ice. Well, a funny thing happened on the way the collision. The latest NASA pictures show the iceberg came to a sudden stop less than 2.5 miles from the ice tongue. Just like countless other ships at sea, the berg apparently ran aground. Scroll down to the second picture to see the animation of the journey. And for Tom Andersen at Sphere, the iceberg is almost exactly the same size as Long Island!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Virtual Center

When I first read about The Nature Conservancy's announcement that it was going to use a $12 million dollar gift from Caterpillar to start the Great Rivers Center for Conservation and Learning, I pictured a physical building on the banks of a great river, like oh say, on the Mississippi in Memphis. The mental model I had was the Natural Capital Center in Portland. How 20th century of me. This center will be more of the virtual kind. Genie Lester of TNC was kind enough to explain it....

"To answer your question as to a location for the Great River Center, the center will function over the internet. Those that direct the center and those that access its data base will do so from anywhere in the world. Information will be received and sent via the internet. The director is located in WI. Input will be sought from large-river experts around the world on questions related to the Great Rivers Partnership and Center."

Ah, that probably is a bit more cost effective. But it's too bad, there are some very cool old buildings right on the bluffs of the Mississippi that would love to be back at the center of the great rivers. Genie, thanks for the fast response.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Clean Hands

I've been harping for my short time on my little soapbox here about the need for land trusts to make sure that they play fair with conservation easements. It's easy for me to say it, I don't have anything invested in it other than a hobbyist's interest. Jon Christensen in Conservation in Practice makes the same case much more cogently than I have. And Jon's magazine gets some of its funding from The Nature Conservancy, so he has a bit more invested in this. Jon looks at the recent ruckus stirred up by the Washington Post's series on TNC and its follow-up on the Land Trust Alliance and new rules to regulate conservation easements. Jon's take....
"Overall, the Post's article did not reveal anything that people inside the land trust movement haven't known and haven't been talking about for some time. The surprise is how shocking it all looks when it's brought out into the light of public scrutiny. That is something conservationists are going to have to learn to live with. Scrutiny is one of the surest signs that conservation has become a mainstream player.
The survival of conservation easements as a tool for protecting habitat on private lands will depend on the ability of land trusts to sort out the conflicts, clean house, and articulate the public interest in helping landowners, some of them filthy rich, to preserve their land—and their wealth. From the looks of the Post article, they're not off to a good start".

Jon does go on to make the point that investigative journalism misses many of the nuances, but latches on to the bad practices. And having overseen many investigative stories, I would say that's a fair point. But the main point here is that trusts have to be prepared for increased scrutiny. Nobody pays any attention to the small fry. But with the large amounts of money flowing into trusts from government, business and individuals... the spotlight is only going to get brighter.
Speaking of the big bucks... Here's another article on the "friendly rivalry" to land the headquarters of the new Sierra Nevada Conservancy.
Finally, thanks to Earth-Info-Net for linking Nature Noted.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Land Trust Land Rush

As big bucks continue to flow into land trusts, the preservers of wild places are being viewed as a source of jobs. There's a competition on to land the newly created Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The Sierra Sun in Truckee, CA says the city of Auburn as well as Placer County are already actively lobbying to land the headquarters. The conservancy has just been created by the state with an initial budget of $3.6 million and a staff of 13 or 14. Eventually that may expand to include 50 to 60 jobs.
And speaking of big bucks, earthmover Caterpiller is moving $12 million dollars to the Nature Conservancy for a new freshwater protection plan. It is the largest corporate gift ever made to the conservancy. The conservancy's press release says the money will be used to create the "Great Rivers Partnership" with a goal of initiating change to result in sustainable management of large rivers worldwide.
"A central component of this new project, the Great Rivers Center for Conservation and Learning, will be at the heart of transforming how these magnificent and critical systems are protected. As the intellectual cornerstone for the Great Rivers Partnership the center will identify cross-cutting issues and activities that threaten large rivers globally; it will develop and support project work that will inform and demonstrate ways to effectively conserve these large rivers; and it will seek ways to engage and influence the business, political and community leaders who shape the future of these great rivers. The Center will function as a learning and sharing clearinghouse, helping to provide access to some of the best scientific, large river information available worldwide.
The gift will support conservation on The Upper Mississippi, the Upper Paraguay-Parana system in Brazil, and the Upper Yangtze in China.
No word on where this center will be based. That may set off a competition of its own.
This has been a banner month for big announcements by TNC.... and it's only January. After a rough year last year, TNC is having much better 2005.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Big enough for Black Helicopters

There's plenty of good news about progress by land trusts around the country today. There's news of this large donation in Iowa that not only includes 5,000 acres of land, but also starts its own conservancy. There's excitement in a small town in New Hampshire, where the Trust for Public land and the Federal government are teaming up to preserve 340 acres slated for development.
But the one article that sticks in my head is this odd one from The Magic City Morning Star about The Nature Conservancy. The opinion piece comes from an online newspaper that gets its articles from volunteer writers. The writer, Marion Campbell is, to put it mildly, not a big fan of TNC. Here's an excerpt.

"Since their first success in Virginia, TNC has always worked quietly behind the scenes, while politicians and land-use bureaus, both federal and state, become their front men. In every community targeted for land acquisition or economic destruction, a TNC operative moves in. They are well-educated and charming, and their job is to seek out the weaknesses that they can exploit. They become close to the people in the community, join their clubs, and volunteer in social programs -- all the while making their plans to betray the people's trust. When the land is acquired through sale, coercion, or condemnation, they leave. Behind them, they leave economic ruin, desolation, and human despair.

The Nature Conservancy and other "Wildlands Project" activists are using the United Nations and other socialist leaning nations to manipulate the entire human population that will be forced to evacuate their homes and live in small, confined colonies while animals run free.

Okay, TNC folks you've officially hit the big time. You're part of the cabal (I think Queen Elizabeth and the Trilateral commission are in on it too) running the world, with a goal of total domination. Next we'll hear you're hatched from pods. And you thought you were just protecting the environment.
The serious message in this is that as trusts like TNC get bigger, they become bigger targets. Suspicions mount, rumors spread and an opposition begins.
How do you stop from becoming the next big bogeyman? By remembering the second part of your name, land TRUSTS. Trust is earned by listening, by playing fair, by being transparent, and by staying on the side of the angels, not necessarily the side of the biggest donor. Now keep doing good work and spreading the word about it. The job is only going to get harder.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Know the Code

The Land Trust Alliance reports on its website that the Chattowah Open Land Trust has become the first trust in the nation to adopt the new revision of the land trust standards and practices. The new standards are in response to the fallout from increased public and government scrutiny following the Washington Post series on questionable practices by The Nature Conservancy. In particular, the new standards give guidelines on board accountability, defining and dealing with conflicts of interest, and compliance with all tax laws. The standards also have been expanded on what constitutes good practices for conservation easements. That's the particular area of interest to the IRS, because of the possibility that insider influence can lead to tax breaks all out of proportion to what should be given.
The standards probably mean a lot more paperwork and bureaucracy for land trusts that are used to a more free wheeling approach, particularly some of the smaller, mostly volunteer organizations. But the goal of greater transparency is to be applauded.
As the introduction to the guidelines says, "The continued success of land trusts depend both on public confidence in, and support of, the conservation efforts of these organizations, and on building conservation programs that stand the test of time. It is every land trust's responsibility to uphold this public trust and to ensure the permanence of its conservation efforts."
Hear, hear.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A Cabin of your own

Here's a great deal, but you better hurry. How's this sound. Two acres on the Penobscot river in Maine. A cabin of your own. And it's only $35,000! The Orono Land Trust is selling the cabin after finding it doesn't need it now. The cabin has one room, an outhouse, and has "recently been rechinked". The trust is hoping a conservation minded person will buy. There's an open house scheduled because so many people have expressed interest.
Also, I blogged about the fundraising requirements for Nature Conservancy chapters yesterday. Gifts like this one make the job easier.
Finally, last week I blogged about the unusual competition between the Eagle Valley Land Trust and a new trust set up by Eagle County, Colorado. Check out this glowing article on the private non-profit.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Nature of the Job

Normally job listings are pretty dry affairs, filled with H.R. jargon. But a listing for a job with The Nature Conservancy gives some interesting details on what goes on inside the state chapters of the big conservancy. The job is for Nevada State Director . The state's TNC website shows the job has been held by Ame Hellman, who took over in 2001. There's no announcement on where she may be going. The listing is very detailed, and includes these nuggets.

"the Nevada program currently has 21 Nevada staff,
including 3 California staff who work part or full time out of the Reno office. The program has a $1,958,730 Million operating budget, an $800,000 private fundraising annual goal, and a $100,000 private fundraising annual goal for global "One Conservancy" priorities. "

Big budget, big fundraising goals. The one number that's not in there is how much the job pays.

One more for sustainable forestry. Weyerhaeuser announced it is pledging to meet new, tougher standards adopted by the Sustainable Forestry Board. The company's press release says "Among the revisions are stronger requirements that call on forest products companies to support conservation of old-growth forests, protect against invasive species, and participate in regional conservation planning.".

And I don't know of any land trusts in Antarctica. But these satellite photos of two giant blocks of ice about to collide are pretty cool. Literally.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Wilds of Chicago

Not all land trust work is in wild areas. Some trusts specialize in creating green spaces inside city limits. The Trust for Public Land is probably the most prominent trust that focuses on urban green areas. The Chicago Sun Times has an update on plans for Millenium Park in Chicago, with a nice sidebar on the work of TPL. An ironic aside is provided by The New (sub)Urbanism blog which reports that a bridge in the park designed by Frank Gehry had to be closed because of snow. What? Snow in Chicago? There's planning for you. Seems the bridge is made a Brazilian hardwood that would be damaged by salt. Guess it's too much trouble to shovel it off.
And in my home state of Oklahoma, the Edmond Land Conservancy is finding it hard to keep up with the growth in the booming bedroom community of Edmond, north of Oklahoma City. The Conservancy is trying to preserve trees (yes, Oklahoma has trees) and green areas around Edmond, but developers are gobbling up the area as home demand continues.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Michigan Green

I'll give the folks at The Nature Conservancy credit for starting the year with a bang. Days after reaching a deal to preserve a huge chunk of New York State, TNC is part of a coalition saving another swath of intact forestland, this time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here's details of the deal with a map plus the TNC press release.
The deal calls for a working forest easement on 248,000 acres and an outright purchase on 23,000 acres in the Big Two Hearted River watershed. Hemingway would have been proud.
This is a case of "if at first you don't succeed...". The land went up for sale two years ago, and the same state and private coalition tried to buy it, but failed. The easements essentially achieve the same purposes. The land stays on the tax rolls, and timber jobs are preserved. The owner, The Forestland Group, agrees to harvest according to standards set by the sustainable forest certification program.
The deal was spearheaded by Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. (Who by the way, might be the real reason to change the constitution to allow the foreign-born to become President.) The entire deal will cost $58 million. $40 million has already been raised.
At the other end of the land trust spectrum, check out this article on the Chikaming Open Lands trust. It's an all volunteer trust that's making a local impact.
UPDATE: Thanks to Jonathan Adler at The Commons for the shout out.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Willie Sutton Plan

It's an old line but a good one. When bank robber Willie Sutton was asked, "why do you rob banks", he's purported to have said "because that's where the money is". Turns out his answer might also be the answer to the question, why start a land trust? At least in Colorado.
All sorts of suspicions have been raised by a last minute move by the Eagle County, Colorado board of commissioners. The commissioners voted to start a county owned land trust even though the Eagle County Land Trust already exists. It's a small, non-profit that might find itself competing with the county owned land trust for the same funds and property. The land trust executives are more than a little peeved. The commissioners claim their trust would only be a sort of back-up, just in case the private non-profit goes out of business. And it's not like the trust is doing a bad job. Just last week it was named the non-profit of the year by the Vail Valley Chamber & Tourism Bureau. And what makes it all even more highly suspicious is that the motion was rammed through in the very last meeting of outgoing commissioners. The new commissioners are expected to be more sympathetic to the private trust. So why the rush? This could be a clue.

"Part of the funding for both land trusts could come from the Eagle County-controlled open space tax that generates $2.9 million annually. That money is highly coveted."

I'll bet. Colorado is generating large amounts of cash for land preservation from taxes and from lottery proceeds. It's only natural that great piles of cash begin collecting more than simple interest.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Adirondack Addition

After years of negotiation, The state of New York, two timber companies and The Nature Conservancy have preserved 104,000 acres in the Adirondacks. Stories here from the AP and NYT. The deal began when Canadian timber company Domtar decided it wanted to pull out of the area and sell. TNC is buying 20,000 acres outright for $6.26 million, which it will sell back to the state at a later date. That land will be added to the state park system. Domtar then sold the other 84,000 acres to Lyme Timber of New Hampshire for $17.47 million, with the understanding that Lyme will sell the conservation easement to the state to prevent development, open the property to limited public access and continue Domtar's certification for "green" logging under Forest Stewardship guidelines.
This is the latest deal by Republican Governor Pataki, who has pledged to preserve one million acres of state land within the decade.
This seems to be win-win for everyone. A beautiful wild land that is experiencing some development pressure will be preserved intact. The conservation easement money will go to an American timber company. Jobs will be preserved in a sustainable way. Outdoor enthusiasts will be able to use snowmobiles and ATV's on some of the property. And if George Pataki really does have his eye on the White House in '08, he just got some environmentalist credentials.

A big thanks to Jacqui at Enviropundit for adding Nature Noted to her blogroll. The hits just keep on coming....

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Millionaires Club

Land Trusts aren't the only way to preserve wide open spaces. There's also the old fashioned way. Rich people owning "vast tracts of land" (can't type that without thinking of Monty Python). The Denver Post (via Tidepool) has an in-depth look at the fierce competition to buy up ranchland in Colorado by the wealthy. Some want to keep the properties as they are, othere are subdividing with everything from small ranches to full scale developments. The prices being fetched are so high, that ranchers can't pass up on the money. Where do land trusts come in?

"Close to 50 local governments are using easements and land trusts to stem development on large parcels of land.
There are options for ranchers not interested in selling to developers or gentlemen ranchers to survive. One popular strategy is to harvest the value of ranchland through a conservation easement, which locks the land in a trust that prevents any future development but allows the owner to keep on ranching.
Kris Larson, executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, estimates that close to 50 Colorado county and municipal governments are using easements and land trusts to stem development on large parcels. In 1999, and again in 2002, the Colorado Legislature passed bills that granted landowners as much as $260,000 in tax credits for locking their acreage in a conservation easement.
"We are seeing tremendous interest in protecting land and ranches in Colorado," Larson says.
But some ranchers, particularly the hardy, independent types, are wary of letting government buy land that future politicians could use for something other than conservation."

For the suspicious who still want to preserve the land, Check out The Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust. It's a trust run by Cattlemen with the intent of preserving working ranches.

Finally, thanks so much the the hardworking millers at Gristmill for adding Nature Noted to their blogroll.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Social Marketing

The Nature Conservancy leaders aren't coming out and saying so, but they may have just announced the first concrete step toward answering Dr. Mac Chapin's critique of TNC & other BINGO's and their dealings with indigeneous people. TNC announced today it is teaming with RARE to launch "social marketing" campaigns in 30 key International areas. RARE, which is also based in Arlington, VA specializes in unorthodox campaigns to build awareness and support for environmental causes. Among its arsenal of marketing techniques is radio novellas... soap opera for radio. It also uses grass roots organizers to get its message out to the people in the areas it's targeting. Here's a profile from Fast Company.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to everyone.
If you've ever bought a lottery ticket in Colorado then you helped fund the purchase of the Red Mountain Ranch north of Fort Collins this week.
The deal closed this week. Larimer County, Colorado and the Nature Conservancy worked together to buy the 13,500 acre ranch which sprawls across two states. Colorado has a program called Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) which uses lottery proceeds to conserve land in the state. $7.85 million from GOCO was used for the deal, along with sales tax money from the county. TNC bought the part of the ranch in Wyoming. It's a big chunk of land, but actually just one piece in an overall plan to preserve 55,000 acres in what's called the Laramie Foothills/Mountains to Plains Project. Here's a link to a longer article earlier in December outlining the overall plan.
As I was reading the Ft. Collins paper about the deal, I came across another item of interest. Congratulations to Dr. David Anderson of Colorado State for winning the Aldo Leopold award.
That sparks a public confession. Before I started researching land trusts, I had never heard of Aldo Leopold. I know, I'm exposed for the fraud that I am. I'm in the middle of Sand County Almanac now, and it's wonderful. Everywhere you look in the world of ecology, you come across Leopold. Why I had never heard of him, I haven't a clue. But this is one of the reasons I wanted to do this blog, To teach myself about a subject that interested me, but didn't know much about.
So my hope for 2005, besides that of a happy year for my family, is that I can continue to fill in the blind spots.

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