What Makes for a Good Land Trust?

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In recent years, the land trust movement in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. While few would deny the important role that land trusts play in conservation, some believe that the movement has strayed from its private conservation roots. Land trusts still offer a golden opportunity to put private conservation ideas into practice, but as their numbers have grown, many land trusts have been accused of failing to observe donor intent and of serving as an arm of state conservation efforts, among other things.

To begin to address these concerns, the Center for Private Conservation hosted a roundtable discussion on October 7, 1997 to ask the question “What makes for a good land trust?” What the assembled panel of experts – CPC senior scholar R.J. Smith, author Tom Holt, the Land Trust Alliance’s Jean Hocker and John Turner from the Conservation Fund – thought about these ideas constitutes the text that follows. The discussion was moderated by Steven Eagle, a professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law, and also includes comments from invited observers.

The discussion hit upon the differences between smaller and larger land trusts, and how important size is to facilitating or hindering private conservation. The panelists addressed the concern that some land trusts have simply become land acquisition agencies for government agencies, and also talked about the issue of perpetuity and whether it creates the proper incentives for conservation.

There is no doubt that the numbers of land trusts will continue to grow. There is active debate, however, as to how many of them will truly advance private conservation efforts. The discussion that follows, while only a starting point, should help to clarify where land trusts have been, how some have changed over time and where are they heading today.