Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Accreditation Plan

The Land Trust Alliance governing board has approved a new accreditation program after much discussion, and just in time for the LTA's annual rally in Madison, WI next month. The press release announcing the news has some details of the plan.
"Accreditation will require land trusts to adopt Land Trust Standards and Practices, the ethical and technical guidelines for the responsible operation of a land trusts. The accreditation process will use 42 of these practices as indicators for independent verification of a land trust's ability to operate in a sound ethical, legal and technical manner.".....
The accreditation program will be managed by a commission of land trust professionals incorporated as a subsidiary of LTA with independent decision- making authority. The commission will be responsible for the ensuring the
highest level of accountability for the accreditation program and operating a system that is fair, consistent and effective.
The accreditation commission will be incorporated and the first commissioners appointed in February 2006. The commission will design the accreditation review process and procedures in 2006, test these with an initial round of applications in 2007, and be fully operational by 2008.
The design of the accreditation program is based on an extensive year-long public involvement process. Over one thousand comments from the land trust community were received during the course of the program's design and led to
the development of a fair, accessible and credible process. Eighty percent of the nation's land trusts plan to participate in the program and seek accreditation, according to market research conducted this past summer.
LTA is working to make accreditation affordable to all qualified land trusts. With the help of its funders, LTA will provide the financial support to develop the accreditation program and subsidize some of the program's costs in initial years. Applicant fees will be kept affordable, while creating a program that can be financially self-supporting over time.

More details are available over on the LTA's website.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Land Trust Professionalization.

The bankruptcy of San Diego's Environmental Trust is reverberating through land trust circles. The Seattle Press-Intelligencer has a little more on the story. On the land trust listserv, some interesting debates have started.
Among them, is it more important for land trust leaders to be business professionals first, and nature lovers second? Or do environmental credentials still count for more? I think this goes back to the entire debate over the future of trusts. Are they necessarily evolving away from small volunteer based organizations and moving toward a professional corporation model? There's no doubt the stakes are huge. Trusts by their very nature are about preserving land in perpetuity, and that requires income in perpetuity. Given that even the largest of corporations rarely last more than a hundred years, how can a volunteer organization hope to do the same?
Considering that even the Federal Government is debating selling off some National Parks' holdings, can small organizations really hope to hang onto desirable land forever?
I think the answer is yes if the trusts continue to be populated by people who have business smarts, but are also truly and passionately concerned about the land they are preserving. Business people tend to look at the world dispassionately, with an eye for the bottom line. If trusts become too weighted towards business expertise, the slippery slope will slide much faster. The trick here, as in most everything else in life, is finding the right balance.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Land Trust Bankruptcy

First the airlines... now the land trusts. San Diego based The Environmental Trust has filed for federal bankruptcy protection. According to the San Diego Union Tribune the trust controls 90 properties around San Diego County... most of them donated by developers to offset other projects.
...But the trust's leaders faltered badly, driving one of the region's oldest land-conservation groups into an unusual bankruptcy.
The shaky finances that caused the trust's collapse raise questions about the long-term stability of land trusts, which own and manage open areas across the United States.
At a hearing Thursday, a federal judge in San Diego will discuss divvying up about 4,000 acres owned or managed by the trust, including the Carlton Oaks preserve in Santee, vernal pools in the county and wetlands in Chula Vista.
"We have two problems – what to do with these particular parcels of land and . . . how to prevent a similar (failure) in the future," said Mike Kelly, manager of the San Diego Conservation Resources Network, formed last year to promote preservation of open space through land trusts.

The article talks about the general concern about Trusts... but it seems as though the problems with The Environmental Trust seem to be similar of any business that goes under... taking on too much without enough resources to pay for it. This sounds like a classic example of bad management and wishful thinking.
San Diego State University biology professor Don Hunsaker II formed The Environmental Trust in 1990, figuring that development soon would overrun some of the region's most ecologically important lands.
"We could see the building booms that were coming," he said.
Hunsaker, now retired, said his primary goal was to protect sections of open land until government agencies took them over or provided an ongoing funding source. But the trust's tax filings said the aim was to "preserve this land in perpetuity."
"Way down deep, I think that all of (the trust backers) knew that perpetuity is a very long time," Hunsaker said. "It was a business model that was built on an expectation that never came to fruition."
By 1998, the trust's assets, including its land holdings and investments, surpassed $18 million, IRS records show. That year, the trust paid Hunsaker $5,918 for working 30 hours a week as the organization's president, according to tax documents.
At the state Department of Fish and Game in San Diego, senior biologist David Mayer watched the expanding outfit win one land-management project after another.
"They were in some cases significantly underbidding their competition, and other firms who were doing good jobs weren't getting some properties," Mayer said.
Hunsaker said he envisioned "passive management," which sometimes boiled down to visiting properties a few times a year to make sure they hadn't burned. "We felt like we were watching over it pretty well," he said.
For the past decade, however, other San Diego conservationists have harbored doubts.
Biologist Scott McMillan said he studied trust land in the Otay Mesa area as part of his master's thesis in the 1990s. McMillan said he tried to help the string of students that The Environmental Trust hired but eventually got burned out because he saw little effort by the organization's officials.
"In many cases, students who had no real work experience were managing these areas that were the most important in San Diego County," he said. "It was guaranteed to fail."
......Because of the trust's unusual circumstances and incomplete record-keeping, its financial picture appears murky. Court records show the trust has about $3.7 million in assets, including $3.1 million in an endowment fund to pay for land-management obligations.
With the exception of three parcels, the trust's lands have no market value because they can't be developed, said Michael Breslauer, the trust's bankruptcy lawyer. He said it was unclear why previous trust managers reported assets seemingly greater than their actual value.
The trust's liabilities were reported at just more than $13 million. Breslauer said that number also appears to vastly overstate the case because previous trust managers did not adequately record the retirement of secured debts.
At this point, the trust aims to offer its parcels to developers, local governments, state and federal wildlife agencies, and finally to other nonprofit conservation groups. Failing any takers, the properties would revert to the state.
"The land stays protected," Breslauer said. "The bankruptcy case is not being used to . . . transform protected habitat into developable property."
Keith Greer, deputy planning director for the city of San Diego, said some parcels within the city are "no-brainers" for acquisition while others are not high-quality conservation parcels.
The state Department of Fish and Game seems even less interested, particularly because the trust's remaining endowment is viewed by most experts as being far below what it will take to manage the lands.

This is a big warning for all Land Trusts. You aren't immune to the natural cycles of business life. Is your trust really financially prepared to survive into perpetuity? Do you have an endowment that will allow you to weather downturns in donations and downturns in the stock market? Be warned, if you don't, this could be your fate.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Let's Head North

Here at Nature Noted World Headquarters we're watching Hurricane Rita as it churns through the Gulf. We're keeping our fingers crossed that the winds don't push that tree resting on top of the barn at Dad's house all the way to the ground, but most of all, we're watching to make sure that Mrs. Nature Noted's family in Texas stays out of harms' way. That's right, we're two for two on Hurricane hits. It's been such a great month.
But... one of the nice things about this little blog is meeting interesting people from all over the world. Such as the comment from Clare Kines... turns out when you click on his link, he's writing a blog about building a house above the Arctic Circle! Clare's a retired Mountie and writes from a true Northern perspective. Check him out at The House and other Arctic Musings. The Arctic sounds like a fine place to be about right now.....

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

It's the little things

When Dad evacuated to Memphis,he was able to contact his insurance, file a claim with FEMA on line and stay up to date on what was going on. He's in fine shape. But if you were on the coast, your access to the internet and even to phone service was, and still is, extremely limited. You'd think the government agencies and insurance companies dealing with this disaster would have realized this by now. Apparently, from this posting on Gulf Coast News they haven't.
People are desperately attempting to get through to FEMA who only has an online registration way of registering their situation. Problem is...there aren't any computers in use in Hancock County. FEMA and Red Cross state that you can call in to register you and your family. If you are lucky enough to HAVE a phone working, service is still sporadic at best, you are either placed on hold, or cut off altogether because the voice mail is full. My sister (who lost her entire house and all her possessions) called to tell me today that FEMA and the Red Cross are a "joke." She has no way of calling and getting a live person, so there's no way to tell any adjuster to meet her at the place where her house USED to be. Phone calls are worthless.
Let's be completely honest here since no one on a government or national media level will be: Communications are hopelessly and ridiculously trashed. FEMA and Red Cross are in WAY over their heads. This is still THE most devastated area this country has ever seen and if not for Gulf Coast News, you - the people spread out across the country and to the four winds from Hancock County - would literally not know there was anything going on there. The prevailing attitude is: relief from the west stops in New Orleans. From the east stops in Biloxi. And from the north stops in Hattiesburg. I mentioned in a prior article that a Colonel from Washington called me up to help him point out Bay St Louis on the map.
For people who do not know the situation on the ground let me spell this out for you clearly and concisely:
Hurricane Katrina's eastern eyewall passed directly over Hancock County with devastatingly high winds and sucking up an enormous amount of water with it. Hurricane Katrina was a MONSTER storm that caused unbelievable devastation to the ENTIRE Gulf Coast, and in particular, wiping out the cities in Hancock County - including the county seat Bay St Louis. Waveland, for all intents and purposes, is no more. The people there who actually have houses standing are the unbelievablely lucky few. There are hundreds and hundreds of people living day to day sleeping on the hard asphalt or on the ground because they have no worldly possessions! People wait in long lines to get what hot meals they can, and in one instance a man reported to me that he nearly gagged on the burnt food, but couldn't waste it because the hot meal was so precious to him. the faith-based organizations are working round the clock to help out with food and comfort to those who have lost all, but they will soon have to pack it in if they aren't supported or relieved of duties for even a little while.
HELP!!!!!!!! People in Hancock County, MS are struggling to survive! They have yet to unearth all the bodies that are more than likely buried in huge piles of rubble and Gulf muck. People who have visited to donate their time are overwhelmed by sadness at the incredibly inhumane conditions in which people are living THREE WEEKS AFTER THE STORM!!! I heard Howard Stern this morning from my radio actually call it best..."what are we, a third world country?!?"
One of the newspapers called for taking down the distribution centers to encourage people to start shopping again and get the money flowing. This may be fine in Biloxi, but Hancock County was DECIMATED! There are no stores. There are no jobs. There are no houses. There is one bank operating. Mayor Tommy Longo has no town left and is pressed to understand just where to begin. Mayor Eddie Favre is showing poise and strength, but is overwhelmed. We have not even BEGUN to come out of the recovery effort, we are not even out of the hurricane season, and they want to take DOWN the distribution centers?.

Bellsouth has set up free satellite phone centers. They have been a tremendous help. Now if someone could come forth with the same type of internet help in Hancock County, more people could get the help they need.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

What I Learned From Katrina

I'm back from what used to be Waveland, Mississippi and I've been struggling with what I should say. By now you've seen the pictures, you've read the descriptions, and heard the survivors talk about their experience. It's all true. No one is exaggerating. This was the Big One. Here are some of the things I think I know after spending several days pulling wet carpet and throwing away furniture and family memories.
1. There is no such thing as a Hurricane Proof house
All along the beachfront of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, there were beautiful homes that were built to not only look good, but to survive anything nature threw at them. They're all gone. I heard the story of the man whose house was built specifically to survive hurricane force winds. The walls were made of reinforced concrete, there were hurricane shutters on the windows. He was so confident he stayed when the storm hit. What he didn't count on was a thirty foot wall of water that would hit with such force that it would blow away everything he had built, and suck him straight out of the building.
My Dad has a good friend who built his hurricane proof house up on pilings. Those pilings are all that's left.
The force of that wave was truly awsome. The only thing that blocked it was the levee formed by the railroad tracks. And I firmly believe that the levee only made a difference only because it ran the same direction as the water. It didn't so much block the water as it did nudge it in the direction it was already going. Those railroad tracks saved Dad's house. We figure the wave that made it over the tracks was about four feet high by the time it hit the house. He has a shed/barn in the back that took the wave first. Everything inside was swirled around. His camper parked under the carport floated out and into the driveway. The wave then broke against the back side of the house. Dad had boarded up the windows, so the initial wave didn't get in and the house is built high enough off the ground so that when the water did get inside we only had about 18 inches of mud and gunk inside. We also are surrounded by woods and bamboo that helped diffuse the force of the wave, so there was no structural damage. That's what saved his house. Distance from the beach. A levee. Natural buffers. Concrete and steel aren't enough.
2.My Sense of Permanence Is Gone
I know that all is vanity, and that everything we build is destined to disappear. But after Katrina I know it emotionally as well. The towns I grew up with. My aunt and uncle's house that was the scene for Thanksgiving's and Christmases and wedding receptions. The front of the house blown away. There's a sailboat in the back yard. And this is a house that sits on a hill above the bay, 21 feet above sea level. The beautiful homes along the beach that I've know all my life are simply gone. Nothing left but a few foundations on the ground, and plastic bags in the trees. My Dad and I talked about this on the ride back. The first thing that rattled my faith in permanence was my Mom's death four years ago. This just sealed it.
3.Get Flood Insurance. Even If You Don't Need It
Or an earthquake rider. Or whatever it is in your homeowner's policy that's not covered in your area. Almost no one in Dad's neighborhood had flood insurance. They weren't in a flood zone. So what's the point. Dad is among the lucky. He says he used to fuss with his State Farm agent every year and think, I don't really need to spend this $200. Now he's so glad he did. Withing 2 hours of meeting with the claim adjuster, he had a check. Because of my cousin the CPA, we also now have a contractor. Dad's house is going to be fine in a couple of months. His neighbors, my aunt and uncle, and most of my cousins are screwed. All but one lived in areas that no one ever thought would flood. Now it's going to take the Federal Government to strong arm the insurance companies into accepting that the high water wasn't "flooding", it was "wind driven high water". What's the difference? For many on the coast, it's the difference between rebuilding and bankruptcy.
4.We Really Do Need Each Other
The first question on the Coast is "Are you okay?" The second is "Have you heard from so and so? Did he make it?" I am stunned not so much by the fact that so many died, as I am that so many survived. Story after story of people who rode out the storm, only to find themselves climbing into the attic, then swimming underwater to safety. One couple swam out of their collapsing house and found a sailboat from the yacht club bobbing by. Others swam to floating roofs. A neighbor is convinced that people survived because the storm hit during daylight, and they could see where they were swimming to.
But once the storm was over, it was neighbors who helped each other. Everything was shared. There were plenty of stories of looting, some of it even while the winds howled. But what came through was the care and shared sacrifice. I heard the story of the rich woman who lived on the beach, in a beautiful home that came complete with a Picasso. She was in the house when it dissolved around her. Our neighbors found her stunned, walking up the street in two mismatched shoes that she pulled out of the mud. No money, no food, no home with a Picasso. They took her in, got her some water and food, and gave her 20 bucks. This from two people who are now living in a metal shed in their backyard, because their home was knocked off its foundation by a falling tree.
After the storm, help came slowly, but when it did come, it came from all over. Baptists with soup kitchens, Mormons with personal hygene kits. Firefighters from Georgia who delivered water to our house, and used heavy equipment to push the fallen trees out of our front yard. Regular Army in full battle gear going house to house, just to see if there was anything we needed, ice, water or whatever. Overhead a constant flow of helicopters. Some flying supplies to the cut-off rural areas, other patrolling at night with infrared, looking for looters.
One of my favorite stories is that of the Sea Coast Echo. The twice weekly chronicle of life in Hancock County that I've been reading since I could read. Their offices were blown away in the wave, so instead the paper is being produced in the water logged home of the publisher, Randy Ponder, who lives three doors down from Dad. Computers are being run by generator power, the paper is being printed in Kentucky and then distributed for free by the staff. You've never seen a newspaper as welcomed as that one. Information is a precious commodity there, particularly for people without electricity or mobility. No one calls it fish wrap now.
5.People Really Are Angry
They're angry because it took days for outside help to reach them. It was two days after the storm before I saw my first story from Hancock County, a CNN report from the foot of what used to be the Bay bridge. Hancock County is essentially a peninsula, and it was cut off. Food, water and help was slow in coming. When President Bush came to Gulfport for his second visit, the local paper, The Sun Herald, buried the story on page 7 with the sub-headline "President Can't Answer Questions About Insurance". This from a paper that endorsed him.
As angry as they are about the lack of federal help, the real anger is being saved for the insurance companies. I'm not going to complain about State Farm. It had people down there in force, got Dad emergency money here in Memphis, and had an adjuster meet us at the house. Because he had flood insurance he went to the front of the line. But we still don't know about the settlements for the flooded out truck or the damage to the house and barn from falling trees. Our across the street neighbors are in worse shape. Their adjuster for a company that I had never heard of showed up two weeks after the storm, spent 20 minutes walking around, and told them he would mail the results in about a week. Keep in mind, mail isn't being delivered. But you could tell he was going to write off the damage to flooding, and wasn't going to pay much at all. We all wanted to just throttle the guy. People know they should have had flood insurance. But they were told they didn't need it, or they convinced themselves. Either way they're stuck. Everything they've worked for is gone. You'd be angry, too.
6.We're Really Lucky
Lucky because my Dad still has a house. Lucky because he had flood insurance. Lucky because everyone in my large extended family on the Coast is alive. Lucky because the biggest, baddest hurricane that anyone around here can remember just clobbered us with her biggest, baddest punch, and we're still here. That surely counts for something.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Shoveling the Muck

Sorry for the lack of blogging lately. We're working our way back up Maslow's pyramid, and blogging is definitely not on one of the lower levels. So here's the family storm total so far. Everyone in the family is safe and accounted for.... everything else is just gravy. Dad's house appears to be one of the few standing in Waveland, but he did get water inside. We're heading down tomorrow to see what's salvageable. Everyone in Waveland has long depended on the the railroad tracks to protect them, because the tracks form a levee. The tracks did make a big difference, but weren't enough to keep out the water. Here's a link to the aerial view of Dad's neighborhood. His house is in the neighborhood in the top right of the picture. Scroll left and see what's left of the neighborhood on the beach side of the tracks. Nothing. Just across the tracks is the cul-de-sac where my cousin Mary Kay's house used to be. She and her daughter and my aunt and uncle along with 20 other people rode out the storm at her ex's house. Fortunately, the house was on the right side of the tracks, and stayed put. But they all had to climb into the attic to escape the water. Uncle Pete and Aunt Betty's house lost one wall of the house.... and from one of the aerial photos is appears they also gained a sailboat in the backyard. Two other cousins had their houses wiped away, two others had water. (It's a big family)
I've been down to the Coast once, running fuel to our crews working there. Getting gas has been a nightmare, but appears to be getting better. Still, we'll be bringing extra fuel just to be safe.
It's all so sad. But it's not the first time the Coast has been walloped. It's just the biggest wallop ever. I know that people will rebuild, and maybe in ten or 20 years, things will even get prosperous again. But it's going to be a long climb. And I think this time, a lot of folks are going to decide that maybe the new start should happen somewhere else. Wish us luck.

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