Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

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


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker