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Are Nonprofit Land Trusts Taking Advantage of the Public's Trust?
Klamathbasincrisis web page ^ | 1996 | Tom Holt

Posted on 07/07/2002 7:19:47 AM PDT by Issaquahking

By Tom Holt

Between Sierra Club-style lobbyists for costly environmental regulation and property-rights advocates, do land trusts such as The Nature Conservancy, or TNC, offer a compromise "third way" - a means to achieve environmental goals using market-based mechanisms? Too many Republicans and free-market advocates have fooled themselves into believing so. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the market-based theory of land trusts and the reality of taxpayer and landowner abuses that occur routinely in land-trust practice.

Land trusts, in theory, have appeal, if one disregards the significant fact that trusts exist to remove property from commerce. Trusts acquire, through donation or purchase, entire properties or certain rights, such as mineral rights or restrictive easements. Conservation easements are similar to those held by local utilities: They are specific rights of use to a property. A typical conservation easement would be one that separates all development rights from underlying farmland, thus preserving an "open-space easement."

In theory, land trusts exist largely to serve as depositories for and enforcers of such easements, as well as managers of land to which they acquire all rights. If Paul Bunyan Timber says it will leave a stand of old-growth redwoods as they are, it someday could renege. But if Bunyan donates the land or timber rights to a land trust, it never will be able to cut the trees - and it might receive substantial tax advantages to boot.

Do trusts, even the biggest abusers of taxpayers and property owners, engage in some worthy activities? Sure. The Nature Conservancy operates some innovative ranches and preserves.

Some land trusts - usually small, local ones - actually perform pretty close to the theory. Such trusts usually have a specific, limited purpose. An example is George Washington's Mt. Vernon estate. Another is a California trust that acquires open-space easements on vineyards, allowing wine growers to gain some tax advantages and, not incidentally, rendering the land useless for anything but growing grapes.

At the state and federal levels, however, land trusts are less about private conservation than about deal making. They act as unaccountable arms of government land agencies, engaging in what is called "preacquisition" - a fancy term for buying land (or, more often, merely an option to buy) for the express purpose of immediate sale to a government agency. It is not at all unusual for a "preacquisition" and subsequent sale to the government to occur within a frame of a few minutes - yes, minutes - during which time a trust may rake off a profit of thousands of dollars. Even when a transaction does not occur simultaneously, a trust may reap a straight commission or markup of 10 percent or more. In addition, agencies will pay interest to a trust for carrying costs.

In one typical land transaction, the National Audubon Society sold a 777-acre tract for inclusion in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge in California for $1 million. Its appraised value was only $700,000.

Make no mistake: This is big business. The Nature Conservancy alone reaped $76.3 million from government sales during fiscal year 1992-93. The conservancy and other land trusts, of course, maintain that they don't make money off these transactions. In some cases that's true. But an internal TNC memorandum reveals how the nation's biggest land trust arrives upon paper losses: It charges itself "imputed interest costs" for money spent on land later sold to the government. This isn't money TNC actually had to borrow; it already had been raised as tax-deductible donations or had come from proceeds of government sales.

Yet critics who focus on the profit angle of land-trust transactions are missing a more fundamental issue regarding trusts: accountability. Trusts and government-land managers are remarkably frank about the major reason an agency would use a trust as a middleman instead of buying land itself: Trusts can operate in ways a government agency cannot. Trusts are "flexible" - essentially free of oversight and procedural regulations.

"Land trusts can operate with less public scrutiny than a government agency," according to the Alachua Conservation Trust of Gainesville, Fla. Trusts don't have to give public notice or hold hearings on their actions. They also can withhold required appraisals from a seller until after a deal is signed.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, I have reviewed the financial records, appraisals and other documents associated with numerous state and federal land acquisitions. With depressing regularity, I have found all of the abuses previously noted. What's more, there is a serious question of whether land-acquisition priorities are being set in the public interest or in furtherance of land trusts' private interests.

Here are examples:

*In Illinois, a conservancy official threatened to recommend foreclosure action against a landowner unless he cooperated in the group's efforts to acquire land for the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The Nature Conservancy issued an apology - after the correspondence came to the attention of a local congressman.

*In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the National Park Service gave tens of thousands of dollars to a conservation group for mounting, by outside appearances, a purportedly spontaneous lobbying campaign for a wild and scenic river designation that would lead to the establishment of a riverside greenway. The project fell apart after a revealing memo leaked and was publicized by a local property-rights group. *In North Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paid The Nature Conservancy $3.5 million in 1988 for a 10,000-acre addition to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The sale took place without a properly documented appraisal of the property, according to the Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General.

Land-trust acquisitions also have become an important tool of de facto regional land-use planning. Trusts can acquire strategically located land or development rights and therefore channel roads, housing and industrial development. A California landtrust official described, on tape, how his organization stopped a major development: "We had coopted the local government when we established a conservancy years ago by having the mayor of the local town and the supervisors on our board, and by me personally helping the board of supervisors of the county set up an agricultural land trust to protect irrigated agricultural land. To the point where people in the government said, `Come talk with the land conservancy, because, in effect, off the record we're telling you, you're not going to work it out without the conservancy.'"

Individuals can get caught in the middle of land trusts' grand acquisition plans too. A landowner surrounded by trust holdings near a park or wildlife refuge can, if the trust land is flipped to the government, suddenly become an "inholder," with greatly diminished property rights - and perhaps newfound status as a "priority" government land-acquisition target.

Several investigations of trust transactions with federal agencies, conducted by both the Interior Department's inspector general and the General Accounting Office, have uncovered numerous irregularities. Investigators have found suspiciously adjusted appraisals, land bought for no apparent purpose other than to serve trusts' bottom lines and unseemly profits. Yet no serious reforms have occurred.

Trusts enjoy support from a weird political coalition of green absolutists, country-club Republicans and even some free-market advocates who have deluded themselves into believing land trusts represent "reasonable" environmentalism. Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour was set to host a TNC fundraiser at the GOP Capitol Hill Club last summer - until property-rights activists threatened to make a spectacle of it.

Land trusts may bill themselves as private-sector alternatives for conservation and their essential function may be based on the vigorous acquisition and defense of particular kinds of property rights such as open-space easements. Yet, as a movement, land trusts are extremely hostile to property rights and many of them are nothing more than extensions of land agencies.

Trusts have provided key support to lobbying campaigns against property-rights legislation at the state and federal levels. Most such legislation - including bills pending in Congress - would compensate landowners for "regulatory takings" - that is, when a government regulation reduces the market value of a property. Yet the reaction of Jean Hocker, president of the Land Trust Alliance (an association for land trusts), is typical of the attitude of the land-trust movement. Hocker told a land-trust convention in 1993 that such legislation "ignores what the public good is" and characterized the political movement behind the legislation as an "insidious effort" to undermine conservation. In a speech, Hocker said people who advocate protections of private-property rights are "so far out on the edge of things that nobody takes them seriously."

Some land trusts even have expressed outright alarm at the advent of the Maine Conservation Rights Institute, or MCRI, a small land trust founded in 1993 by property-rights activists. MCRI forthrightly states that it will not voluntarily transfer any of its land or easements to a government agency, thus providing its donors with the assurance that a donation will not contribute to the expansion of government holdings. As an organization determined to operate entirely within the private sector, MCRI would seem to appear to live up to the ideal mode of a land trust. Yet, when Jay Espy of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust spoke at the same convention as Hocker, he called MCRI "a scary thing" because "its purpose is to protect private-property rights."

If land trusts are so pro-market, why are their executives so distrustful of groups advocating property-rights protections? Because, with few exceptions, land trusts aren't really pro-market. They exist to remove land or land rights from the ordinary marketplace. Land trusters simply don't trust private-property owners to take care of their land.

Those who think there can be a lasting accommodation between real property-rights protection and the land-trust movement are dreaming. While many foot soldiers of the land-trust movement are decent people engaged in worthy, strictly local projects, its commanders and senior lieutenants mainly are true greenies with good suits and haircuts, ever looking, as a Trust for Public Lands newsletter puts it, "where the money trees grow."

Holt is a public-affairs consultant in Beaverton, Ore., a former newspaper editorial writer and author of a forth-coming book on land trusts.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Constitution/Conservatism; Crime/Corruption; Extended News; US: Alaska; US: California; US: Colorado; US: Florida; US: Idaho; US: Montana; US: Nevada; US: New York; US: Oregon; US: Utah; US: Washington; US: Wyoming
KEYWORDS: enviralists; environment; klamathlist; landgrab; landtheft; landtrust; nonprofit; propertyrights; tnc; trusts
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I know this is a 1996 article, but I believe the message is worth repeating around America until everone really starts to get it, and starts taking action.
1 posted on 07/07/2002 7:19:47 AM PDT by Issaquahking
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To: madfly; B4Ranch; Iconoclast2; Jeff Head; Goddess50; *Klamath_List; backhoe; nunya bidness; ...
2 posted on 07/07/2002 7:23:34 AM PDT by Issaquahking
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To: Free the USA; Ernest_at_the_Beach; Libertarianize the GOP; Stand Watch Listen; freefly; expose; ...
3 posted on 07/07/2002 7:28:32 AM PDT by Issaquahking
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To: Issaquahking
Not only is it worth repeating, I'll lead my next mass email with it. People need to read this stuff and educate themselves.
4 posted on 07/07/2002 7:33:14 AM PDT by backhoe
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To: 68-69TonkinGulfYatchClub; Stand Watch Listen; SpookBrat; amom; Green; *Enviralists; Iowa Granny; ...
5 posted on 07/07/2002 7:33:30 AM PDT by Issaquahking
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To: Issaquahking; jojo123; oldvike; Rocky; Jay W; TheMole; bagman; grundle; aruanan; Bernard Marx; ...
This needs to printed out and studied.
Very informative.
A great explanation of the process and the perps.

Thanks for posting
6 posted on 07/07/2002 7:39:29 AM PDT by madfly
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To: Paulie; TomGuy; Regulator; Reaganwuzthebest; Fish out of Water; Marine Inspector; ChaseR; expose; ..
7 posted on 07/07/2002 7:39:33 AM PDT by Issaquahking
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To: Issaquahking
Something for you to read when you get back from your vacation.
8 posted on 07/07/2002 7:43:47 AM PDT by Lucky
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To: Issaquahking; George From Brooklyn Park
Something for you to read when you get back from your vacation.
(Meant for George)
9 posted on 07/07/2002 7:46:13 AM PDT by Lucky
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To: madfly; backhoe
Thanks for the comments....But we have so much work to do. Madfly is there another article out about the activities of the 11th in regard to the House Resources Committee? The more we have mobilized against the dangers from within the country, the quicker America will continue to grow.
10 posted on 07/07/2002 7:51:40 AM PDT by Issaquahking
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To: Issaquahking
But we have so much work to do

Yes, and that's really a problem. There's really too much for any one person to cover adequately. The further I look, the more "issues" I see that need to be kept before the public's attention, and hammered on until they wake up.

You almost can go down the Bill of Rights and see each "area of concern" where people need their conciousness raised, their attention held, their minds educated and informed until they are burning with a desire to learn for themselves just how much "simply isn't mentioned."

11 posted on 07/07/2002 8:01:10 AM PDT by backhoe
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To: Issaquahking
An oldie but goodie. Thanks for re posting it.

This part screams with a personal reality.

While many foot soldiers of the land-trust movement are decent people engaged in worthy, strictly local projects, its commanders and senior lieutenants mainly are true greenies with good suits and haircuts, ever looking, as a Trust for Public Lands newsletter puts it, "where the money trees grow."

Years ago, there was a small local trust project, the McCloud River Trust. They basically saved the McCloud River and brought it back around. They allow fishing and camping on their land and were very friendly people. I became a regular contributing member.

Then, one year they were bought or went under the control of TNC which had a few good projects in N. Cali.. So I continued my contributions to the McCloud River Conservancy. Each yearly check made me a member of the TNC.

Some disturbing things started to come to light and some of their positions sounded like the Club Sierra Thugs.

Then, they became the bad group in the eyes of local enviral nazis in a huge con game re our local river. The local enviral thugs wanted nothing to do with TNC, and they didn't want TNC involved in this huge scam which is still going on. That was a big plus to TNC by those of us in the small minority against the river scam.

So I still had a semi warm spot for them after this. However, I stopped donating to the MCRC when the TNC newsletter started sounding like Club Sierra elites were running it.

Then, I got some very scary data about the real intentions of TNC from some Freepers during the Klamath Basin Crisis. That did it for me. No more TNC in my life.

There have been no donations to them since then. I will still donate items to the McCloud River Conservancy but zero money. Rumors are the MCRC is trying to go back to its own umbrella and away from the TNC. If they do that, and I can confirm that they have split the sheets, I will probably go back to contributing to them.

12 posted on 07/07/2002 8:07:00 AM PDT by Grampa Dave
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To: Issaquahking
At the state and federal levels, however, land trusts are less about private conservation than about deal making.

This, I believe, is the only motivation of most and power. That's it.

13 posted on 07/07/2002 8:14:28 AM PDT by nicmarlo
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To: *landgrab
Index Bump
14 posted on 07/07/2002 9:18:53 AM PDT by Free the USA
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To: backhoe; snopercod
15 posted on 07/07/2002 12:22:35 PM PDT by First_Salute
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To: Issaquahking; backhoe
Three commentaries, by speakers, Jean Hocker, Tom Holt, and Ann Corcoran --- from The Competitive Enterprise Institute's website, article dated January 1, 1998, entitled: WHAT MAKES FOR A GOOD LAND TRUST?.

Jean Hocker is president of the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), the national umbrella organization of land conservation organizations, known as land trusts. The Alliance provides land trust leaders with training, education and information; advocates laws and policies that that encourage voluntary land conservation; and fosters public understanding of land trusts and their methods and approaches to conserving land. Ms. Hocker has been the Alliance's chief executive since 1987. From 1982 to 1987, Ms. Hocker was executive director of the Jackson Hole Land Trust in northwest Wyoming, where she led the organization in protecting several thousand acres of ranch land and wildlife habitat. Prior to that, she served as a consultant to the Izaak Walton League of America, directed a legislative effort to establish a Jackson Hole National Scenic Area and conducted a study of affordable housing options for the Teton County, Wyoming, Board of County Commissioners.

MS. JEAN HOCKER: Thank you. I want to thank you all for holding this forum, because I think we do need to air some of the issues that are on the table today.

I have just come back from an extraordinary meeting of land trusts. It was the Land Trust Alliance's National Land Trust Rally, held in Savannah, Georgia this year, where over a thousand people came together from communities all across the country to learn from each other how to be successful land trusts, how to protect and sustain a way of life that makes their communities special places to live, and how to work with landowners to do that.

They came from land trusts, some very small land trusts, some very large land trusts. They were landowners. They were professionals who work with land conservation. It was an extraordinary four-day gathering that shows, indeed, the vitality and diversity of the land trust movement.

I want to talk just a little bit about land trusts, about the Land Trust Alliance, about what land trusts look like today, the methods they use, and then speak specifically to a couple of the things that Tom Holt raised in his opening remarks.

The Land Trust Alliance was formed 15 years ago by land trusts themselves, local and regional land trusts, because they recognized that they were scattered throughout the country, with little method of contacting one another and learning from one another, and that each organization, upon forming, was likely to be reinventing the wheel. It didn't seem a very efficient or very effective way to operate. So, the Land Trust Alliance was formed by land trusts to provide those connections and ways of sharing information, training, and learning with one another.

The Land Trust Alliance is a membership organization. Land trusts pay dues to the alliance, based on their own operating incomes, from $150 a year to $1,500 a year, with most of them being in the much lower range.

The land trust movement in this country is growing, as Tom said. There are now over a thousand land trusts in the country. The last time we did a real census of land trusts was three years ago. We're in the midst of doing another one now and I cannot bring you, today, the absolute, current, statistics, because we are just assembling those right now.

But, in 1994, we found about 1,100 land trust organizations (defined, by the way, as a non-profit organization whose primary business and purpose is to work with land owners to protect parcels of open space and sustain their natural or open space values for the public benefit). Over half of those land trusts were all-volunteer organizations. Over half of them had budgets of less than $10,000 a year.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are large land trusts, the national land trusts that you mentioned, and also a number of statewide and regional land trusts. So land trusts do run a range, though they tend to be clustered at the smaller end of things.

The Land Trust Alliance serves, especially, the local and regional land trusts and was formed to do that, the national land trusts, of course, having resources that the local and regional groups do not. However, our membership encompasses the full range.

The methods land trusts use are also diverse and they are always voluntary. Land trusts are non-profit groups so they have no powers of government. They must depend upon voluntary methods.

Land trusts acquire land outright, by purchases, sometimes, and usually by donations from landowners who want to see the values of their land perpetuated for future generations. They conserve all different kinds of land. Much of it is productive land; very little of it is set aside as totally pristine, untouched, land. Most of it is ranchland, agricultural land, woodland, forest land. On much of that land productive use continues to take place, with only certain restrictions on it.

Land trusts, in addition to acquiring and holding land outright, sometimes acquire land and transfer it to third parties. That third party may be a rancher or a farmer who couldn't afford to buy the land at current market value, but if the land trust first puts restrictions on the land as to its future use, the value of the land comes down, and a farmer or rancher may be able to afford to buy that land. So, sometimes the third party transfer is to other private landowners.

Other times, as you point out, the land trust may acquire land and transfer it to a government agency, be it a local parks department or a state fish and game department or, in some cases, a federal conservation agency.

Our last census found that only about 18 percent of land trusts had engaged in any kind of pre-acquisition activity with government agencies. So, this is not a big part of what land trusts generally do. It is one of several methods that they use.

Land trusts also use and have perfected the use of the conservation easement which, as the people in this room know, is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust to limit, usually in perpetuity, certain uses of the land, in order to sustain specified conservation values.

The conservation easement is a good tool in many cases. It's not always the perfect tool but it can be an excellent tool for, especially, sustaining productive use in a way that's compatible with conservation values. Because the land stays in private ownership, it stays on the tax rolls, it stays in productive use, and limits only those uses that would be in direct competition with the conservation and natural values of the land.

It is a very good tool for sustaining many kinds of open land, without interfering with productive values.

The conservation easement can be written as a term easement, and some government agencies actually purchase term easements. But, as you point out, the Tax Code does say that easements, in order to qualify for a tax deduction for the limited value given up, must be donated in perpetuity. "Perpetuity" merely means that it has no end. The courts could, over time, overturn a conservation easement if they felt that the purpose of the easement and the public benefit has changed. But, we do assume, and the Tax Code does anticipate, that donated easements are given in perpetuity.

The amount of land that the local and regional land trusts have helped to protect is a little bit over four million acres. Now, you expressed some concern that most land in the country, the majority of land, would soon be under conservation easement or taken out of productive use by land trusts.

I think that the four million acres that local and regional land trusts have helped to protect do not indicate that we are at any time soon likely to see all land taken over and placed in some conserved status, even though you're right that land trusts are increasing the amount of conserved land.

The perpetuity question is one that I would also like to address. The decision by a landowner to develop land, whether as a parking lot or a house or a condominium development, or whatever it may be, is also a permanent decision and a perpetual decision for the use of land. And what land trusts are doing when they are working with landowners is carrying out the land owners' desires for the land, just as the development of land is carrying out the landowners' desires for the land.

I believe that both are relatively permanent decisions as to how land will be used, although protecting, keeping land in open status, also preserves opportunities for a variety of uses that developing the land in effect closes off.

The land trust movement is growing. I think that represents the desire of a broad range of people to see open space as part of their lives, not only their own lives but of the lives of their children and their grandchildren. We don't make any apologies for that; we think that this is something that people in this country want. They are the people who are supporting land trusts. And we believe that land trusts are a democratic, a very American, way of protecting and conserving values for the future, and preserving options for the future and are, indeed, a third and very valid way of sustaining the character of communities in this country. Thank you.

[Jean Hocker has since stepped down from her post at the L.T.A.]


Tom Holt is the author of a forthcoming book on land trusts, is a public relations consultant and writer in Portland, Oregon. Presently a member of the editorial board of Brainstorm, a Northwest regional magazine based in Portland, he is a former editorial writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Reagan administration speechwriter and public relations staffer at The Heritage Foundation. He is the author of The Rise of the Nanny State (a profile of the consumer advocacy movement), and his writings have appeared in Reason, National Review, The Public Relations Strategist, The Wall Street Journal, and many other newspapers.

MR. TOM HOLT: Thank you. I want to, first, just say a quick word on how pleased I am that CEI is putting this on, particularly because it's home to the Warren Brookes Fellowship. It was Warren Brookes' reporting, probably 10 years ago now, that first got me interested in this whole issue.

The other comment I'd like to make is just that --- because I'm kind of the designated critic today --- I do admire the good things that Conservation Fund and other land trusts do, and I greatly admire what the Land Trust Alliance has done for land trusts. It's a tremendous resource of information and Jean Hocker has done tremendous work in building it into a large organization.

That said, I disagree with some of the goals of the land trust movement, as I see it. Before I came out here I was talking to some folks who are free market environmentalists, about this whole idea of trusts, and one of the questions they had was "Well, you know, different people have different definitions of a land trust. What, really, is a land trust?"

And I think the short answer is that there isn't any one answer. But, at risk of over-simplification, it seems to me that land trusts exist to preserve as much land as possible in its natural or historic state, for the least amount of money. And, to that extent, trusts exist to remove land or certain rights to the land from ordinary commerce. Once land is put under a conservation easement or an open space easement, that portion of the property right no longer trades in the marketplace --- it is not bought or sold as ordinary property.

If the land ends up as part of a park, it no longer trades. So, to that extent, the land is removed from commerce, in all deference to projects like the ranch just mentioned that are finding ways to keep the land in commerce.

I came into this, into working on land trusts, truly with an open mind. I didn't know much about them. I had no particular environmental background. My background was as a reporter and writer, and so I just started out with "Okay, what do these things do?" and looked at land records and talked to people involved with land trust transactions, went to some Land Trust Alliance meetings and tried to learn as much as I could about how they actually operate, and I think, albeit as an outsider, I've gotten a pretty fair picture of how they operate "on the ground."

And I ended up thinking, first, "Well, overall --- maybe it's an okay thing," that it is a market-oriented solution, a third way as it were, to handle environmental problems. But I saw a lot of technical objections or problems. For instance, the whole practice of pre-acquisition, that I'll talk about in a minute, certainly raises some controversial issues.

But, then, as I looked deeper, I really have come to some broader philosophical objections to what the land trust movement does now. One is that the trust movement has been changing the nature of its activities in recent years. Not very long ago the general focus of trusts was fairly site-specific: you'd find a place that was worthy of preservation. There was not too much disagreement on the fact that it ought to be worthy. Then you'd go take care of that project.

Now trusts are oriented, it seems, more toward broader ecosystem protection, landscape protection, and things of that nature that involve a much broader vision, and because of that, it seems to me that the land trust movement, in effect, whether it's intentional or not, is moving into a role of the de facto zoning authority of the nation, without all the encumbrances that an elected government would have to overcome if it were to engage in zoning or similar kinds of things. For instance, there's no need for a public hearing, there's no need for a vote. You arrange the transaction and you go in and it gets done.

Secondly, and this is a related issue, is the whole issue of perpetuity. This, I think, is totally a creation of the Tax Code. No one can get a tax deduction for making a donation of land or property rights (mineral rights, for example) to a land trust unless that donation is permanent.

It seems to me it's a quite radical notion to say that, here in 1997, we know what the appropriate use is for a particular property 100 or 200 years from now. And we could be, intentionally or not, setting some things in place that we may not like or our successors may not like very much, 100 or 200 years from now, and yet we've left no way to change that, under the existing system.

And I think there's an easy technical fix to that: Change the Tax Code so that there could be some kind of 20- or 25-year revisiting, or 50-year revisiting. I don't know what the magic number is, but allow it to be revisited so that we are not making permanent decisions about what happens in whole communities, without the community necessarily being involved or having a say in what happens.

And, along with that, the pace of trust activity is accelerating rapidly. There are a lot more trusts now than there were even 10 years ago. The latest number I've seen is well over a thousand. Not too long ago it was a couple of hundred. And, not long before that, it was a handful.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service says that the amount of land under trust control or that has been preserved by land trusts, outside of what I call "the big three," the Conservation Fund, Nature Conservancy, and Trust for Public Land &endash; and maybe it should be "the big four," with the American Farmland Trust --- has gone up by about half in just the last five years.

Now, in general terms, if that pace continues, and this is rather apocalyptic I realize, but at the present pace and including existing government ownership, in a generation or so, we'd be looking at a majority of the land mass of the United States under some kind of a conservation easement or preservation status. And I'm not sure that that's healthy at all for a country that's based on a free economy, having that much land restricted in its commerce.

Those are the big, philosophical objections I have. The technical objections are really fairly straightforward. This whole notion of pre-acquisition: I don't see any good reason why taxpayers should be giving land trusts two dips at the trough, one, a tax deduction for donations to a trust and, secondly, profits on land sold to the government.

I understand that not all trust transactions result in profits, but an awful lot of them result in what can only be called "unseemly profits," that, really, land trusts take very little financial risk and large amounts of money changes hands. If the government wants to acquire land, there is really no good reason why the law could not be changed to allow the government to go out and buy land. If that's what we agree that we are supposed to do, let's just do that. Why have middlemen doing it?

I ran across a lot of questions in land records and I'll just cite one quick example, near the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge area. In the 1980s, the land prices, supposedly, were depressed because insurance companies were unloading their farmland.

Well, the appraisers, who were setting the price that the government would pay for the land, most of which was pre-acquired, first, by a trust of one sort or another, decided "Well, that didn't really count. That depression didn't really count, and we can set an appraised value somewhat higher and make up for that," which raised the question in my mind "Well, at what point has the market changed enough that we can on longer take that into account?"

And, again, it seemed to be arranging the transaction in a way that benefited a special interest group and raised the question across the board of "Does the tail wag the dog? Is there a deliberative process by which the government decides, or our elected representatives decide, that XYZ piece of land is something, by golly, we ought to preserve, it's worth preserving, we're going to make it a park, and let's go out and get it done," or, as I have seen in a number of transactions, does a trust go out, buy a bunch of land, or easements, or get them donated, and then say "Look what a wonderful thing we've done. The Congress has to take this off our hands. And if you don't you're being very bad people." Then Congress appropriates the money.

Lastly, there is the issue of squeezing landowners. And we have an observer here, I think, who can speak to that better than any of us theorists, Ann Corcoran [see below], with her experience at Antietam Battlefield.

But, basically, there are instances, and I think this is just a symptom of being out of touch with people "on the ground," who have to live with the results of what we decide as policy or to acquire land, but there are instances where landowners can find themselves, by virtue of trust acquisitions, suddenly on the border of a park, close to a park, in the middle of some larger set of transactions that they know nothing about, have not been informed about, and they're stuck. And that seems rather unfair, and I don't really see why trusts have to operate that way. That doesn't make sense to me.

Now, I know --- I did find one good citation that summarizes why government does this, and it's very simple: It's free to the government. The USDA report says "Partial interests in a particular tract of land can be held and traded separately, presenting opportunities for public agencies to influence resource use," and this is the key phrase, "without incurring the political costs of regulation or full financial costs of outright land acquisition."

I have run across this so many times it makes me sick, government officials saying, "We use land trusts because they can do things we can't do." That's right, they don't have to have public hearings, don't have to have public notice, and in all deference to the wonderful things that some trusts do, and I think there are some terrific ones --- Mt. Vernon I name in my book as one of the nation's very best land trusts.

It does its job very well, has an indisputably good mission. What you described, John, at the ranchin New Mexico, sounds like a wonderful project. But I really don't understand why there has to be these kinds of methods that raise questions and put landowners in really untoward positions.

This is an admittedly critical view. One of the decisions I had to make in writing my book was "Do I rehash what many others have already done, of telling the good news about land trusts?" And I thought "Somebody has to tell the more critical side of it," and that's what I've done. And I just wanted to make clear that although I'm here as a critic, I do understand that trusts do some very good things, and I agree with a lot of those things. But I do have some objections.


At this Competitive Enterprise Institute round-table where Jean Hocker and Tom Holt spoke, Ann Corcoran explained what had happened with regard to her land adjacent the Antietam Battlefield. [Source: Sierra Times article, The Green Land-Grabbers: It's Not Just the Feds Who Are After Your Land, by Bonner Cohen, November 28, 2001.]:

Among the Conservation Fund's many activities is the "preservation" of Civil War battlefields. But "preservation" often means expanding battlefield boundaries and gobbling up private land in the process. In one ambitious land-grabbing effort near Antietam Battlefield National Park, the Conservation Fund joined forces with the National Park Service and the State of Maryland.

Ann Corcoran, a former employee of the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, owns a farm adjacent to Antietam park. She and her neighbors understand the tactics of the Conservation Fund-what she calls "squeezing landowners"-because they experienced it first-hand in the 1990s ... Corcoran explained what happened to her. "Once land trusts start working hand in glove with governments, then what they're doing is my business," she said.

Corcoran elaborated: "The Conservation Fund, working with the Park Service, decided they were going to start picking up properties outside the boundary of the park. The Park Service did not have the right to tell them to pick up private properties outside the legislated boundary, for the purpose of selling them to the National Park Service.

"One of those properties would have surrounded me and put my farm in the park, and we purchased the property to save ourselves from being included with a national park boundary expansion. Once private property comes inside the boundaries and becomes an inholding, it is eligible to be condemned by the Park Service."

Corcoran noted that Conservation Fund lobbyists made repeated attempts in Congress to find a senator who would support an expansion of the park's boundary. "But there are sixteen homeowners who would get stuck as inholders inside the park, and they're scared to death." Fortunately, Corcoran and her neighbors banded together and blocked the Conservation Fund's maneuvers at Antietam.


16 posted on 07/07/2002 2:29:34 PM PDT by First_Salute
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To: snopercod
Took a while, but I transcribed the C.E.I.'s PDF file so that we'd have the commentaries on file, here; thought Ann Corcoran's experience and further reference to her work, which you may find on the Internet, may help you.
17 posted on 07/07/2002 2:31:23 PM PDT by First_Salute
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To: Issaquahking
The N.G.O of the U.N are 503c
18 posted on 07/07/2002 2:35:40 PM PDT by PatriotReporter
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To: First_Salute; Carry_Okie
Thanks so much for transcribing that. Carry_O, you need to read this.
19 posted on 07/07/2002 4:35:04 PM PDT by snopercod
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To: snopercod
I'll take a look. I'm pretty familiar with the pitfalls of conservation easements (especially regarding contractual obligations on the property owner to pay ALL legal costs when a neighbor sues over some irritant). Then there are the open-ended treaty obligations. I have never recommended much more than term contracts for marketed uses.
20 posted on 07/07/2002 4:52:36 PM PDT by Carry_Okie
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