Private Options: The Leading Edge in Conservation Today

This review was published in 2005 as the second entry in my Land Trust Reading List on the earlier version of this website.  Slightly revised and updated, it’s republished here on the occasion of the 2009 Land Trust Alliance Rally.


Private Options: Tools and Concepts for Land Conservation. Barbara Rusmore, Alexandra Swaney, and Allan D. Spader, Editors. 1982.  Island Press.

This proceedings volume brought together a great fund of information about land trusts at an important time in the development of the movement. Nearly thirty years later, the book is still useful to anyone trying to learn about land trust operations. Other than some specifics of tax law and regulations, little of the material is outmoded.

The approximately 75 papers came from the first two conferences aiming to take a national view of  private land conservation by local organizations.  Both were held around this time of year 28 years ago, in the fall of 1981.  The first, the National Consultation on Local Land Conservation, was held in Cambridge MA October 14-16 under the auspices of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The second a month later, November 13-15, was Private Options for Land Preservation, A Conference for Practitioners.  It was held in San Francisco, though under the sponsorship of the Montana Land Reliance.

The Lincoln Institute, a land use policy group, was relatively new, founded in 1974. The Montana Land Reliance, a local land trust, was still newer, formed in 1976 and awarded non-profit status in 1978.

Land trusts formed since the later 1980s have mostly been named “land trusts” or “land conservancies,” but those formed in the hundred years between 1891 (the Trustees of Reservations) and the early 1980s used a variety of names, sometimes “trusts” or “conservancies” with various modifiers, but also many “associations,” “societies,” or “foundations.” As far as I know, the Montana organization is still the only “reliance.” Perhaps it was called a “reliance” from the rarely used definition of “one relied on.” There may be more to it than that or, possibly, less.

The book combines material from the two conferences; that from the National Consultation amounts to about 60 percent to the Private Option’s 40 percent. A separate proceedings for the National Consultation had been quickly assembled and published by the Land Trust Exchange (later, Land Trust Alliance), the national umbrella organization to which the conference gave rise. The National Consultation material included in this book is virtually identical to the separately published proceedings. Proceedings from the Private Options conference were advertised but evidently never produced, probably being incorporated directly into the joint volume.

Two conflicting emotions dominated the conferences. One was gloom over the threat to conservation and environmental protection that came from the new (January 1981) administration in Washington, that is, from Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and their appointees. “Somewhere between Teddy Roosevelt and James Watt, the Industrial Revolution won out over the purple mountains’ majesty,” wrote Maggie Hurchalla, a representative of a Florida land trust to the National Consultation. “Land trusts are largely an answer to government failure. As a result, they are an accusation.”

But there was also a feeling of excitement at the great potential of private land conservation. Cecil Andrus, governor of Idaho and Secretary of the Interior under Jimmy Carter, gave the keynote address at the Private Options conference. He called the blossoming land trust movement the “leading edge” and the “third wave” of conservation in the U.S. The first wave was the rise of government protection of land, wildlife, and forests–the National Parks, National Forests, game protective laws, and conservation advocacy groups. The second was the popular environmental movement of the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s with its accompanying federal and state regulatory legislation. “I call you the third wave,” Andrus said to the gathering.

In a section of comments from participants of the National Consultation, Allan D. Spader, the organizer of the conference, said, “The relatively spontaneous accomplishments and growth of the local land trust movement [are] unique in a world where success is measured in terms of media hype…or a government program grant.” And Robert Augspurger of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (CA), wrote of the conference itself, “[O]ne might compare [it] to an old-fashioned revival meeting. Here we had a group of ‘circuit-riders’ from all over the country, coming together to refresh, reinspire and reeducate each other. The results were indeed electric.”

Authors include a good many persons still active in the land trust movement–after all, it was less than 30 years ago. Among these are Mark Ackelson, Joan Vilms, Martin Zeller, Jean Hocker, and William Hutton. Some figures important in the exponential growth phase of land trusts are gone or less engaged now. Among these are Kingsbury Browne, Jr., Russell L. Brenneman, Gordon Abbott, Jr., and Benjamin R. Emory. Several more who contributed to the discussions were active for a time but are no longer connected with land trusts or, at least, not in any very visible way. Where, for example, is Maggie Hurchalla, author of the provocative quote a couple of paragraphs back?

[Added 14 August 2009.  I now know where Maggie Hurchalla is.  I was put on the trail by a column in Parade magazine.  (I make it a point to spend at least 30 seconds every Sunday reading Parade.)  Her name came up in an answer to a question concerning former Attorney General Janet Reno.

I must have failed to google Maggie when I wrote the original review, because over five thousand entries came up when I tried the other day.  In addition to being Janet Reno’s younger sister, she has been involved in environmental battles throughout her life.  Among her causes have been growth management in Florida and wetlands protection and restoration, including the Everglades.  She served as a Martin County commissioner for 20 years (1974-94), was chosen Florida Audubon’s Environmentalist of the year in 1981 and was a National Wetlands award recipient in 2003.  As far as I can tell from material on the web, Hurchalla has little if any recent connection with the land trust movement.  But she has continued to fight the good fight.]

Most topics of importance to land trusts are at least mentioned in the volume. Among other subjects, we read about marketing, preservation of agricultural and historic lands, community land trusts, negotiation skills, tax policy and income tax incentives, conservation easements (including some early comments on possible problems), partial development, cooperation with government (pros and cons), some summary material from the first real census of land trusts, a bit of history, some regional perspectives, organizational development, and ideas about forming a national umbrella organization.

Although there is material on fee acquisition and stewardship of natural lands, an emphasis on conservation easements and agricultural lands is evident. This emphasis was unrepresentative of what the majority of the more than 400 land trusts in existence were actually doing as of 1981. It was, however, prophetic of the shifts in emphasis that characterized much of the 1980s and 1990s and prevail today.

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