Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Thursday, April 28, 2005

I wasn't extinct, I was in Memphis

I've long suspected that time has been suspended once you cross the Mississippi river bridge and head into Arkansas. Now, scientific proof! An ivory billed woodpecker has been discovered in a protected forest of eastern Arkansas called The Big Woods. It's an area that's just 40 miles from downtown Memphis. The last sighting in the U.S. was in 1944. The Nature Conservancy says the discovery may mean more protection for the Big Woods area.
"This is huge. Just huge," said Frank Gill, senior ornithologist at the Audubon Society. "It is kind of like finding Elvis."
How appropriate.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Amateur vs. Professional

It has been fascinating to watch the debate sparked by Gerrit Stover's letter (see below). Before the letter, the national "debate" on the LTA's accreditation plan on the land trust listserv was as silent as a still snowy night in January. After the letter.... kaboom. Gerrit struck a nerve. The letter questions whether the plan will force small, mostly volunteer land trusts to "professionalize" or go out of business. There seems to be much pent up anger on the part of the small land trusts, and more than a touch of suspicion that these measures are meant to crowd the little guy out.
There also seems to be a sense of resignation that maybe the land trust movement has reached an inevitable point of maturity. That the freewheeling days of a few volunteers saving local land is on the way out. That the institutionalization phase has begun, and that these rules are going to make it too expensive for the little guys to stick around. There is an acknowledgment that something has to be done to stop the few bad actors who are twisting the rules to their benefit. But it's tinged with anger that the people who have been playing by the rules are going to be the ones who suffer. Much of the anger, frankly, has been aimed at The Nature Conservancy. There seems to be a feeling that land trusts are feeling this heat because of mistakes by TNC as chronicled by the Washington Post. And now it's only the big guys like TNC that will be able to afford the back office staff to comply with the new rules.
I hope not. There's so much passion in these arguments, so much love for what the local trusts are are doing. I really hope that the people who are trying to save the planet one acre at a time don't become the babies being thrown out with the bath water.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Discouraging Word

Below is a long, but thoughtful critique of the LTA's plan for accreditation. I haven't heard many dissenting voices on this topic, and I think it's a worthy read. It's posted with permission of the author.

As much of what I have to say is critical, let me preface this by hailing the hard work of the Steering Committee and LTA staff. Their willingness to engage in an effort which in some quarters has garnered more brickbats than praise is exemplary of the generous spirit which makes land trusts work. As a related confession, I myself have contributed almost nothing to this discussion to date, so I fear this message is sour grapes from someone who has not toiled in the vineyard.

I applaud the desire to raise standards in the land trust community, principally because I believe that improvement can in turn help protect more natural resources. Nevertheless, I still fear that this current effort is fundamentally misguided -- and ultimately doomed to fail in its immediate objective -- protecting our movement from hostile forces.

I fear that accreditation will eliminate many smaller, all-volunteer, and sometimes less robust land trusts. If recognized and respected broadly enough to be an effective badge of legitimacy -- itself an open question -- accreditation will marginalize and ultimately doom unaccredited land trusts. In more cynical moments I fear that would not be not unwelcome to some whose ideal land trust seems to be a business-like organization led by professionals.

Remember, however, that some of those same ‘below-par’ land trusts are the only actors in their communities or regions that accomplish worthwhile land protection. Thus this ‘winnowing out of the weak' will inevitably leave areas of our country unprotected, areas which lack the resources to establish or maintain organizations with the particular capacities required to reach accreditation.

And, while those land trusts may in some cases ultimately fall short in the quality and stewardship of their easements, they are NOT those that have opened the door to today's external attacks. (And, ironically, judging from the latest reports, I suspect that the current assaults on land trusts are evolving on the basis of LTA’s defensive self-criticism of land trusts.)

I find it particularly disturbing that very few of the proposed accreditation standards measure substantive conservation accomplishments. Accordingly, I fear that accreditation invites the evolution of the land trust movement into a cohort of slick, professional, administratively competent organizations -- but ones which may or may not actually achieve substantive conservation. I think a pretty strong argument can be made that there are many smaller, less professionalized land trusts that are in fact far more efficient in protecting land than large, staff and management heavy ones. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better conservation in a field so dependent on local knowledge and acceptance.

I view the current perfect storm of bad publicity and bad policy 'reforms' on the federal level as inevitable given the political climate. Still, as inevitable as the current attacks were, the simple fact is that The Nature Conservancy, with all its wealth and prestige (and real accomplishments -- perhaps as strong a reason for their being a target as their failings) -- an organization that would easily pass accreditation, was used as the excuse to bring the sky down on all of our heads. To me this is ample testimony that accreditation won't protect us.

The accreditation initiative will not curtail the hostility of and attacks by those who object to the very nature of what we do: their goal is not to see us become more competent, but to see us stop protecting land. Accreditation may remove some of the more obvious ammunition which TNC and peddlers of facade easements (please pardon the juxtaposition) provided them, but if we remain effective, the opponents of land conservation will merely adopt other means to shut us down. The expansion of ‘reform’ proposals to erase any benefits from donated conservation easements -- not just from illegitimate ones -- is ample evidence of that.

To my mind, there are ways to defend our legitimacy that don’t risk cutting off the grassroots which lend our movement much of its credibility and effectiveness. First we should publicly root out the few illegitimate villains who pose as land trusts, proffer tax schemes to landowners, or act for private benefit. This does not require the imposition of a full-blown accreditation process.

Internally, we must all redouble our efforts to provide professional guidance for beleaguered land trusts, and support the valuable and patient work LTA has long engaged in to steadily improve the quality of all of our organizations. And, as wedded as I am to the belief that local land protection requires local actors, I do endorse LTA’s hitherto gentle encouragement for non-viable organizations to face reality and find alternative structures, merger partners, or other means of reinforcing and improving land protection -- ones that still retain a local face.

Even then -- as someone who always and usually vainly urges my fellow volunteer board members to attend conferences and trainings -- I fear that some effective organizations will never be able to or willing to take time from their desperate struggle to save imperiled land with inadequate financial and human resources to take advantage of self-improvement opportunities. I think the very silence of many of us small land trusts in the LTA debate is evidence of that. Still, we should not be drummed out of the field unless we are engaged in wrongdoing or wreaking real -- not anticipated or imagined -- damage. And I see very little concrete evidence that we are in fact guilty of this.

Finally, for every inflated anecdote about insider-dealing and tax evasion schemes, we must counter with the concrete evidence of our successes and our public-spirited passion. The rabid development and resource exploitation lobby has clearly seen those successes and is fighting them. Now we must make sure that the media and the public can see and applaud them.

In writing this, I came across the 1999 Luntz poll on land protection issues, prepared by Republicans for Republicans. That poll showed substantial support not just for conservation, but for new public lands, and even -- gasp -- for the preservation of wilderness. That support was uniform across the nation, from blue stronghold to red redoubt.

That belief in the protection of nature has not vanished from the country -- only from Washington. Now we must remind the public of our part in that laudable struggle -- and point to the bitter truth that our successes have driven those who want to pillage the landscape to seek to halt us in our tracks: not because we are evil, but because we are too good.

-- Gerrit Stover, Western Massachusetts

Thursday, April 21, 2005

LTA's plan

The Washington Post has coverage on LTA's plans to tighten training and accreditation.
A national conservation group announced yesterday that it is launching a $3 million program to improve ethics and governance at the nation's 1,500 land trusts. The Land Trust Alliance, the nation's leading association of conservation organizations, is bankrolling the effort largely through a $1 million challenge grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The grant will help the alliance train and accredit conservation groups, part of a broad effort to improve professionalism and weed out rogue nonprofits.
"We cannot allow a few bad apples to stop thousands of private land owners, working farmers and ranchers, and local communities from protecting America's natural areas and landscapes," Rand Wentworth, president of the Washington-based alliance, said in a statement. "Accreditation can meet two important goals -- to build strong and enduring land trusts and to create a seal of approval that publicly recognizes their good work.

Details still haven't been nailed down, and the LTA is still gathering comments on the plan until May 9.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Memphis to Haiti

I've added another link to the blogroll that's not exactly land trust related, but might be of interest to those of you with worldy environmental interests. It's called Memphis to Haiti, and will detail my parish's work to help our sister parish in Layaye, Haiti. The biggest needs there are clean water, medical care and electricity. You know, the basics. Also, anyone who has knowledge of similar projects, please feel free to chime in with your expertise. Thanks.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Let Your Voice be Heard

Everyone in the land trust community is invited to take part in a national dialogue this week. Starting today, the Land Trust Alliance is holding a series of conference calls and an ongoing dialogue on the landtrust listserv. LTA is seekig comments on the proposed accreditation and training program for land trusts. The conference call schedule is below... note, you must register to join the calls.
Western US: April 18 at 10:00 am Pacific Time (1:00 Eastern)
Central US: April 19 at 10:00 am Central Time (11:00 Eastern)
Eastern US: April 20 at 10:00 am Eastern Time
National: April 21 at Noon Eastern Time (9:00 Pacific; 10:00 Mountain; 11:00 Central)
All land trusts are invited to participate in this call.
To register, go here.
To join the listserv, go here.
According to the letter to the listserv put out by the LTA, here are the goals of the discussion
Based on the input received to date and after much debate and discussion in several multi-day meetings, we recommend for discussion that accreditation, supported by training and technical assistance, is the best way to build strong land trusts and ensure the credibility of the land trust community. Our proposed recommendations include:
•One voluntary accreditation program based on Land Trust Standards and Practices with two designations: core practices implementation and full implementation of Land Trust Standards and Practices.
•Accreditation based on land trust functions: for all organizations, proficiency in basic organization skills; and, as applicable, proficiency in skills needed to conduct basic transactions, to hold conservation easements, and to hold fee-title.
•A program of training and technical assistance to help land trusts be successful in accreditation, beginning with specific resources linked to implementing the core practices.
Many individuals who might not otherwise participate in the land trustlistservmaysignup this week solely to participate in the proposed land trust accreditation program dialogue. Because of this, we respectfully request that non-critical messages be withheld until the listserv dialogue ends (April 22.)

Got an opinion? Join in.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Wandering the Woods

There are many reasons for land conservation. And we usually hear the big ones: stopping global warming, saving habitat and preserving species. But one of the best sales pitches is sometimes forgotten, the sheer joy of wandering the woods. That argument is highlighted by this article by the AP on forest preservation efforts in Michigan. As noted here before, several big deals have been closed in Michigan in the last few years, particularly in the Upper Peninsula (the Yoop, as the natives call it). Most of these deals have come about as timber and paper companies rearrange their portfolios, selling some land, subdividing other. Here's how the article puts it It has inspired a campaign to preserve public access and protect ecological values such as wildlife migration corridors when private forests go on the auction block. The effort has produced success stories, including several transactions that will keep thousands of U.P. acres open, but other land remains vulnerable. "There really are some crown jewels that stand to be lost unless the public takes some action," said Alan Front, senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation organization based in San Francisco. Randy Swaty, a U.P. forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy,described the parceling of large tracts as "the biggest threat to biodiversity and the way of life up here."
"There's a lot of uncertainty about what the companies are going to do," Swaty said.
Wandering the woods is regarded as a birthright in the Upper Peninsula, where about 40 percent of the land is public -- two national forests, three national parks, 22 state parks and scenic sites and local parks. Additionally, private timberland enrolled in the Michigan Commercial Forestry Program is open for hunting, fishing and sometimes other activities such as snowmobiling and birdwatching. The program taxes woodlands at a lower rate than other real property in exchange for public access. It covers 2.2 million acres -- nearly all in the U.P. -- with a combined 1,300 owners, from timber companies to hunting clubs to the guy with a cabin on a 40-acre spread. Many states have similar programs, a crucial supplement to publicly owned land -- "a secondary network of open space," Front said. But when commercial forestland is sold, the new owners sometimes opt out, particularly buyers of smaller parcels who crave their privacy.

But while everyone seems pretty happy that the forest land is being preserved, others don't think the deals go far enough.
Skeptics question the ecological value of such projects. By letting activities like logging and snowmobiling continue, they don't repair fragmentation that has devastated wildlife habitat, said Doug Cornett, Michigan coordinator of the environmental group Northwoods Wilderness Recovery. "We've got these machines ... wreaking havoc on communities with their noise and pollution," Cornett said. "I don't think that's a good way to have a sustainable economy." Defenders say initiatives like Snow Country Byways are good-faith efforts to balance the needs of people and nature. If the land around Lake Gogebic hadn't become part of the national forest, it might have been chopped into 20- and 40-acre parcels with cabins, septic tanks and clearings, drastically altering the landscape, forest spokeswoman Lisa Klaus said.
I can see the argument for keeping the machines out, but the deals do seem to be better than the alternative, and it builds a politically powerful coalition of environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts. It's one thing to argue the benefits of keeping snowmobiles out of Yellowstone, but I think it's self defeating to keep them out of areas where people have been using them for years. And frankly, I don't think the environmental lobby is strong enough to pull off these deals by itself. In politics, compromise is necessary. For too long, politicians have been able to drive a wedge between these groups, demonizing the greens as radicals who want to take away people's snowmobiles (as well as their guns, and probably their daughters). There is common ground here, and it's time to take it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Just because it's cynical doesn't make it wrong

You have to give Wal-Mart credit. When it does something, it does it big. The company's image has been under assault, and some of the blows have begun to hurt. It needed a PR boost fast... something that would get it positive coverage across a wide spectrum of media. So it decides to latch onto an idea put to it by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation a year ago. Make a big donation to save an amount of land equal to the "footprint" of all your stores.
Here's how the New York Times puts it.
Barely a week after environmentalists forged a broad alliance with organized labor and community groups to attack Wal-Mart and its business practices, the company announced Tuesday that it would donate $35 million over the next decade to an ambitious new conservation effort by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
And the donation got attention. From CBS and NBC to sports media like ESPN to international media like the CBC and the Financial Times .
The size of the gift seemed to stun Wal-Mart critics. Here's how the Financial Times put it The Sierra Club, the largest US environmental group with 700,000 members, described the plan as "welcome". But the group, which is a member of a new coalition of Wal-Mart critics, also accused the company of trying to "paint itself green" and called on it to improve its record on environmental problems arising from its store development programme. Last year, Wal-Mart paid a $3.1m fine to the federal government over storm water discharge from construction sites for new stores in nine states.
As detailed in my previous post, the land purchases will be across the U.S and Canada. It could have big local implications in those areas.
According the the Times Some $6 million of the money will be spent on an agreement to protect 312,000 acres of contiguous land between 600,000 acres of protected land in New Brunswick, Canada, and 200,000 acres protected by the State of Maine. The purchase will create an area of roughly 1 million acres of protected land, with more than 50 lakes, 1,500 miles of rivers and streams and 54,000 acres of wetlands, home to 10 percent of Maine's famous loon population. "I cannot overstate the importance of this," John Berry, the executive director of the foundation, said of the Maine agreement. "This is like a Noah's Ark for Eastern wildlife species, everything from big stuff like moose to frogs and salamanders."
So was it a cynical grab to buy environmental respectability? Smells like it. But if it makes a real difference, does that make it bad?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Wal-Mart's Land Swap

This came across the Associated Press Wire today...
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer,
pledged Tuesday to spend $35 million compensating for wildlife
habitat lost nationwide beneath its corporate "footprint."
Acre for acre, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it would buy an amount
of land equal to all the land its stores, parking lots and
distribution centers use over the next 10 years. That would
conserve at least 138,000 acres in the United States as
"priority" wildlife habitat.
The money will go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation,
a private nonprofit group created by Congress in 1984 to leverage
federal dollars for conservation projects, including 312,000 acres
in Maine alone.
"We introduced the concept of the offset program to Wal-Mart
last year," said Max Chapman Jr., the foundation's chairman.
"They were quick to say yes, and Wal-Mart's leadership is raising
the bar in conservation."
It's the first time any U.S. corporation has pledged such an
arrangement, according to Interior Department officials, who will
help decide which places to conserve. Interior Secretary Gale
Norton said she hopes the deal becomes a model for other companies.
The action also helps Wal-Mart burnish its green credentials,
just ahead of Earth Day. The company bought full-page ads in
Tuesday's editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post
and ads in about 20 other papers touting its new wildlife habitat
Wal-Mart has come under scrutiny over its labor practices and
how its stores affect communities and competing retailers. Last
month it paid a record $11 million to settle federal charges of
employing hundreds of illegal immigrants.
With a quarter trillion dollars in annual sales, Wal-Mart
employs 1.6 million people at 3,600 U.S. stores and 1,570 stores
The foundation plans to raise $35 million to match the Wal-Mart
money, but said it would start off by putting $8.8 million from
Wal-Mart toward a $20.5 million project to conserve land in five
--Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana: Buying
privately owned land to expand the refuges by 40 percent to 6,098
--Sherfield Cave/Buffalo National River in Arkansas: Adding 1,226
acres of bat habitat.
--North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona: Buying two private
ranches with 1,259 acres.
--Squaw Creek in Oregon: Buying a conservation easement on a
private ranch to protect 1,120 acres along a tributary of the
Deschutes River to aid salmon and steelhead fish populations.
--Downeast Lakes region of Maine: Protecting 312,000 acres around
Washington County, including 54 lakes and 1,500 miles of river and
stream shoreline.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Carbon Tax?

The President of one of the nation's biggest utilities came out in favor of a "Carbon Tax" yesterday. According the this AP story on MSNBC "Duke Energy Corp. will lobby for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions that would reduce fossil fuel consumption and begin addressing the global warming problem, the company’s chairman and chief executive said Thursday. “Personally, I feel the time has come to act — to take steps as a nation to reduce the carbon intensity of our economy,” Paul Anderson told several hundred Charlotte business and civil leaders at a breakfast meeting. “And it’s going to take all of us to do it.” Anderson acknowledged a national carbon tax would mean bigger utility bills and higher prices at the gas pump for consumers. But unless industry leaders take the lead, he said, the long-term outcome could be even more disastrous. “If we (the U.S. energy industry) ignore the issue, we would be the easy target,” he said, referring to lawsuits against the industry. “The worst scenario would be if all 50 states took separate actions and we have to comply with 50 different laws.”
What would be the implications of a carbon tax, besides bigger electric bills for you and me? There could be incentives to switch to other, cleaner fuels, or there could be credits on the tax for activities that promote carbon sequestration, such as increasing forests that would keep carbon dioxide in trees, not in the atmosphere. Suggestions on the LandTrust Listserv point to programs that are beginning like this in California. Check out The Pacific Forest Trust for a link on California's New Forestry Protocols.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

TNC's plan

The Nature Conservancy has come out with its plan on working with Congress to prevent abuses of conservation easements.
"The Conservancy’s proposals aim to strengthen existing laws and regulations by:
* Improving conservation easement appraisal practices and standards.
* Providing additional financial resources to the Internal Revenue Service to enable appropriate review and oversight of the easement valuation substantiation process.
* Ensuring that conservation easements have a clear conservation benefit and serve important public purposes.
* Limiting modifications to conservation easements.
* Instituting tax penalties for the violation of the terms of a conservation easement.
* Ensuring conservation easements are enforced by qualified and financially-secure conservation organizations".

A pdf with detailed proposals is on the page.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

It's Not As Bleak As You Think

Let me be the first to congratulate the Prickly Pear Land Trust of Helena, Montana. They got their message out to someone who matters. Today the Senate Finance Committee opened its hearings on tax abuse by charities, and the conservation easement deduction got a strong defense from the ranking Democrat on the Committee, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Here's an edited excerpt of the Senator's opening statement..
“In my home state of Montana, small chariities with few resources provide many essential services........ “
“....if you hike among the pristine wilderness of the Elkhorn mountains, you can thank the three-person team at the Prickly Pear Land Trust for protecting over 1,500 acres of wildlife, trails, open space, streams and productive agricultural land in central Montana.
“When I consider the reforms that we are here to discuss today, I am going to keep groups like .... the Prickly Pear land trust in mind. I recognize that any reform effort needs to be a balance between cracking down on the bad guys, and not unduly burdening the good guys.”
“In particular, I am concerned that their (the Joint Committee on Taxation) proposal on land conservation may have gone too far. While I want to make sure that scams in the land preservation field are addressed, I also want to ensure that farmers and ranchers in Montana can continue to get a fair deduction for donating easements that protect valuable open space. The Joint Committee proposal would eliminate the deduction for charitable contributions of conservation easements that would include a principal residence. This would prevent many working farmers and ranchers from claiming a deduction for donations of easements.
One of Montana’s greatest resources is its open space. I want to make sure that generations of future Montanan’s can appreciate the clean streams, rolling fields, and rugged mountains as I did growing up. I intend to work to ensure that farmers and ranchers continue to play a key role in preserving Montana’s open space.”

It looks like the land trust message is getting out.
Other Testimony
IRS Commissioner Mark Everson testified about the difficulty of properly valuing easements, and how overwhelmed his staff is by the volume of work. Like all good government managers, most of his testimony revolved around the huge workload, and how with more money and people, he could do a better job cracking down on abuse. Here is an edited excerpt from his testimony on conservation easements.
" “The IRS has seen abuses of this tax provision that compromise the policy the Congress intended to promote. .... Further the conservation easement rules place the charity in a watchdog role. In a number of cases, however, the charity has not monitored the easements, or has allowed property owners to modify the easement or develop the land in a manner inconsistent with the easement’s restrictions.”....
“We are examining charities that we believe may have been involved in particular abuses and those charity officials who may have unduly profited from their positions with a charity. We are currently examining 48 easement donors and also are reviewing deductions taken for nearly 400 open space easements.... We will use all civil and criminal tools at our disposal to combat abuses.”"

The chief of staff of the Join Committee on Taxation, George Yin, repeated the difficulty of giving a proper valuation to easements, and repeated the recommendation to do away with all deductions for property with a residence on it, and alowing only a 33 % deduction on all other conservation easements.
But Mr. Yin seemed to be the lone voice for that.
The final testimony came from Diana Aviv, who is the executive director, Panel on the Nonprofit Sector. She also came out in defense of the easement deduction. Here's an edited excerpt from her testimony regarding easements.
"“We are deeply troubled by the Joint Committee’s proposals to limit deductions on donations of property to the lesser of the donor’s basis or the fair market value. a significant number of Americans, particularly in rural areas, hold their wealth in real estate and in private business. Their basis is often significantly less than the current market value of their property and limiting deductions to the basis would likely cuase many taxpayers to continue to hold these assets or to sell the, resulting in no gifts or a significantly lower gift to charity......
“The Panel agrees that we must have clear, consistent methods to determining the fair maket value of such gifts, as well as stringent standards to assess the quality of appraisals used by taxpayers in determing the value of their gifts of property....”
“The goal, however, should be to end abuses, not eliminate donations of property...”
“We commend both the IRS and organizations in the conservation community, such as the Land Trust Alliance, for the actions they have taken to clarify rules, identify and penalize abusers and prevent future abuse. There must be tighter rules and higher standards for appraisals and appraisers, and the IRS must have the resources it needs to conduct an effective review and audit program to address and correct taxpayer abuse.”

Judging from the first day of testimony, the future of the easement deduction is not as bleak as you might have thought.
If you want to read the full testimony, go to the Finance committee website.
Finally, one last point. Witness after witness made the point that charities need to increase their governance, and become more transparent. Where have I heard that one?

The hearings start

The Senate Finance Hearings are underway. On the page is a link to watch live. It also has a link to the IRS commissioner's letter on his findings on cheating by nonprofits. Jon links to the the Washington's Post summary. It's not pretty, but my quick read indicts lack of money for enforcement, not just cheating by non-profits. Imagine that, he says if he had more money and people he could do a better job! Back to work, more thoughts later.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Senate Starts

Jon (don't call me late for dinner) Christensen has the scoopage on the Senate Finance committee hearings over at the The Uneasy Chair. No trusts on the witness list, but plenty of big guns from the world of taxes and charities. The hearings start tomorrow, April 5.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Power of Transparency

Gary Jones at Crumb Trail has some thoughts on an article rattling around the internet that is highly critical of the motives and methods of The Nature Conservancy. The source is from the Triple A Livestock Report which is a publication for New Mexico livestock operators, via The Westerner. The gist of the article is that TNC is intent on gobbling up all the land in the U.S. That it's a trojan horse for the government to take over property. That it's in bed with big corporations. And that it's using the "new tool" of conservation easements to take over the country without having to actually own the land. It's a variation on the conspiracy theory that can be pinned to just about any large organization, from the U.N. to the Vatican to ExxonMobil. And like every good conspiracy theory, there's just enough truth to the story to make it believable.
First, some clarification.
The article makes it seems as though TNC's President Steve McCormick has just said many of the things attributed to him, as he spells out his plan for world domination. But if you'll read the original article, you'll see the quotes are taken out of context and comes from an interview that's 3 1/2 years old. Some of the other charges are just silly. Is TNC bad because it gets money from large charitable foundations? Name a big non-profit that doesn't. Unfortunately, many of the other shots come straight from the Washington Post series, you know, the one that started the whole Senate Investigation thing. There's no doubt that many of the lingering wounds for TNC are self inflicted.
What's too big?
I've written about the dangers of these conspiracy theories to TNC in particular, and to the land trust movement in general. Get too big and people naturally get suspicious. Screw up a few things, and all your motives are thrown into question. But there are some advantages to being big. I've been following land trusts deals since last November, and no single organization seems to do as many deals or as many big deals as TNC. And keep in mind, the people who sold the land or the easements to the Conservancy and its partners did so willingly. And TNC is very upfront about thinking big. McCormick has talked publicly about the need to preserve entire ecosystems, not just scattered patches of land. TNC's very size allows it to make things happen that smaller trusts could only dream about.
Just as there are advantages, there are disadvantages beyond just being a big target. Bureaucracy, pressure to show results, pressure to do more, because there always will be more to do. Gary makes the point that local people do a better job managing the places around them. I think that's generally true. Local land trusts exist because local people care about the land around them. And if you know the land trust director from the Rotary club, or your kids share a classroom, or you know that person from church, you're less likely to think he or she is part of a conspiracy plotting to take over your land.
Get Transparent
So, what should TNC do? Honestly, I don't think the folks in Arlington really care what I think, but it's my blog and I'll suggest if I want to. It can be summed up by one word. Transparency. Let everyone see how much money you're taking in, and how you're spending it. The LTA has been pushing their members to get more transparent, and the entire reason the Senate is investigating (beyond the obvious reason of money) is that TNC and others have not been totally upfront about finances. TNC has a big PR staff using national and state websites to publicize the good things it does. It has a very slick (and I mean that in a nice way) quarterly magazine. It has the ways and means to spell out its "ways and means".
So Steve McCormick, take the pledge now. Spell out, in language everyone can understand, how much you're taking in, what the sources are, how much you get from each source and how you're spending the money. Nationally, internationally and state by state. Show how much your top executives are making. How much the top staff in every state makes. How much money goes for land acquisition and how much goes to conserving the land you already have. Go above and beyond the LTA standards, above and beyond what any other conservancy is doing. I understand the need for confidentiality on real estate deals in progress, but there's no need to be quiet about what you've already done. Stop the conspiracy theorists in their tracks (or would it be tracts?). There is mistrust building out there in places you want to work, and among people you'll want to work with. If you aren't completely upfront about what you're trying to do and how you spend and get your money, your job is only going to get harder.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Healthy Forests

Here's another perspective on the Sustainable Forestry controversy. It comes from New West . New West is a new regional website that focuses on the Rockies, and uses both staff and "citizen journalists" as reporters (read unpaid). The site has had some fascinating stories. A recent series on Meth and prostitution just begs to be turned into a book or an episode of Law and Order (if the show adds a western locale). This particular story focuses on an on the ground look at the "Healthy Forests" initiative by the Forest Service.
Note to New West... I like the citizen journalist concept, but would feel better about it if you included a little more about the author. In this case, the author is just identified as "Matthew". Is that his real name? A little on his background could help the reader understand if there are any 'hidden axes to grind" that might be helpful in the reading. Just a suggestion.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Farming for Land

Which organization received the largest amount of money in federal agriculture subsidies in the state of Minnesota last year? Hint. It's not a farming organization. Records obtained by the Associated Press show The Nature Conservancy actually tops the list. According to the AP "The Nature Conservancy received $557,000 in subsidies, in exchange for conservation easements on prairie land the group is restoring in the northwest part of the state. The top five farms received between $340,000 and $375,000 each, with Hector Farms of Hector, Minn., topping the list. Ron Nargang, state director of The Nature Conservancy, said his group received payments for putting conservation easements on 1,400 acres. Most of those payments ranged from $360 to $430 an acre. The group is restoring prairies in Glacial Ridge, a swath of land near Crookston that is being turned into a national wildlife refuge. The Nature Conservancy, which is nonprofit, is using the money to help pay off the $9 million it paid to buy the property, Nargang said. The USDA's conservation programs, he said, "create critical incentives for farmer and other private land owners to consider the importance of good habitat and resource protection."
I'd be curious to know if that holds true for other states as well.
Speaking of labels that may not describe things accurately...... Hey Jon Christensen, did you know you were a "conservative thinker"? That's what the Land Trust Alliance website claims. The page has a link to the letter to the editor by Jon and Terry Anderson in defense of the conservation easement deduction. I guess I can understand why the LTA would want to advertise "conservative" support to Congress, and Dr. Anderson would seem to have the credentials (Hoover Institution, free market environmentalism) to back up the conservative label. But Jon has described himself as being from the "radical center". Sometimes in the quest for simple labels, the shades of gray tend to be blotted out.
Sustainable Forestry
Speaking of Jon, he links to a press release from a coalition of 90 Southern scientists calling for an overhaul of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's certiication standards. The letter claims it's just a marketing tool designed to fool green buyers into thinking they're buying wood products from environmentally sensitive companies... but the reality doesn't match the marketing. Given the number of conservation deals made recently by trusts that include requirements for Sustainable Forestry... the scientists' concerns are worth taking a closer look.

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