Evolving Land Trusts

America’s land conservation movement is undergoing a profound evolutionary shift.  Traditionally, land has primarily been protected for its natural values – wildlife habitat, scenery, forests and wetlands, and agriculture.  Yet once protected, many natural areas have become isolated from the communities around them.  

Sometimes, this is fine, as the properties were protected to save habitat.  But many lands are failing to meet their initial vision of connecting people to nature, instead just becoming part of the passing green blur outside our car windows.

This is a problem.

When places aren’t valued by the communities around them, or when other community issues are given greater significance, their persistence becomes vulnerable.  This reality first hit me early in my career when I was talking to a colleague from Bolivia.  She told me that national preserves covering hundreds of thousands of acres were being ravaged by illegal logging.  The communities outside the preserves were terribly poor, and logging was one of the few economic options they had.  Since the well-being of the communities wasn’t part of the conservation equation, the legal protection of the land failed.

Properties protected by land trusts across America are similarly at risk – perhaps not in the short term, but certainly generations from now.  And “generations” is a perspective that land trusts must take, because when they protect land they’re responsible for them forever.

Recognition of the perpetuity challenge is driving a major evolutionary shift as land trusts gradually recognize and embrace “community conservation.”  Community conservation doesn’t necessarily change the land that land trusts seek to preserve.  Rather, it broadens the constituencies that the land trusts serve by using their lands to help meet deep community needs. 

At first, the connections can be so different from the past that they seem a bit crazy.

In Maine for example, the Damariscotta River Association opened one of its properties to local farmers to grow food for a food bank.  The land had previously been used for growing hay; now a portion is growing food.  Hunger has been a serious problem in their area, so the land trust took proactive steps to help alleviate it.

In Connecticut, the all-volunteer Groton Open Space Association launched an after-school Explorers Club with a local middle school and the town.  Concerned by the number of children they encountered who were afraid of bugs and being outdoors – as well as data showing the negative impacts of too little time outdoors on social well-being and health – they created this highly successful program to get kids out of their houses and to introduce them to nature outside the classroom.

These and other innovative community conservation efforts may strike some as cases of mission drift, but they’re not.  By helping solve real community challenges, these land trusts are building deep community support for their protected lands.  When people see the land as an important part of their daily lives, community support increases the likelihood of perpetual protection.  And that, ultimately, is the mission.