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The Ethics Of Land Trusts

Land Trust Alliance Rewriting Its Ethics Standards

At its annual conference last weekend in Sacramento, the Washington-based Land Trust Alliance announced plans to add ethics training to its professional workshops, begin an ethics column in its quarterly magazine and develop regulations governing land-preservation techniques.

... The nation's 1,300 land trusts represent the fastest-growing arm of the environmental movement. The nonprofit organizations protect land by buying and holding real estate, and by accepting donations of conservation easements -- permanent deed restrictions that bar some types of intrusive development. The alliance said those methods have helped protect more than 6 million acres of open space in the United States.

The alliance's emphasis on ethics comes after a Washington Post investigation into the Arlington-based Nature Conservancy, the association's largest member and the world's wealthiest environmental group. The three-day Post series published in May reported that the conservancy had logged forests and drilled for oil under the last native breeding ground of an endangered bird species. The charity's governing board and advisory council included executives and directors from corporations that had paid millions in environmental fines, the series pointed out, and the conservancy had engaged in multimillion-dollar business deals with those executives and their companies. Other stories told how conservancy officials had extended low-interest loans to charity executives and sold scenic properties to conservancy employees and state trustees, who often built homes on the sites and reaped large tax breaks from the Internal Revenue Service.

A land trust is an interesting creature. Though it frames its mission in a social-benefit sort of way, it's a private organization. The problem is how to preserve that first element against the abuses that the second allows. The discussion of ethics seems focussed on shoring up the benevolence of the trusts. Trust managers simply need to be clearer on what the right thing to do is, and more committed to doing it. For example, Darby Bradley said:

Let me suggest that a land trust’s primary responsibility is to the Community At Large, and that because of this, we are obligated to think about the needs of that community which go far beyond land conservation. ... It is no longer ethical, in my view, to say that the job of a land trust is to conserve land, and that meeting all the other needs of the community is somebody else’s job. We must consider the larger big picture and the context within which we do our work. Back in the early days of the Land Trust Alliance, we could get away with thinking just about conserving land. The subject was so new to everybody, and our early efforts were so feeble (for the most part), that it didn’t really matter much what the context was.

What seems to be missing from this vision is a mechanism for ensuring that the ethical goals are met. External enforcement, such as the legal action that has prompted this ethical soul-searching, seem inadequate, particularly on a day-to-day basis. Some sort of internal checks and balances or incentives ought to be found that would inhibit trust managers from abusing the power that they attain as the owner of sorts of a large amount of land. The mission of a land trust means that the basic private property model, which is designed to enable one to do whatever one wants with one's property, is not enough.

There's also a problem of finding a mechanism for establishing the goals. The private decisionmaking model works well enough if the goal is strictly nature protection on the trust land. Nature can't effectively speak for itself, and so the role of a privileged interpreter, such as a land trust board with access to the latest ecological research, has a place. But if -- as Bradley argues, and I agree -- the role of trust land is broader, incorporating human needs and uses, as well as considering trust land in the context of the total landscape, things get trickier. There is a strong trend in the social sciences today away from the idea that any one actor, no matter how enlightened, is able to decide the proper land management regime. A broader participatory decisionmaking process (one that confers real power on community members) is necessary to make trust management more responsive to local needs, as well as giving the ultimate decision greater legitimacy.

On the other hand, the lack of this sort of broad participatory scheme is part of what makes land trusts effective at stopping development. To some degree it's the old dilemma of choosing between democracy and decisiveness. Beyond that, there's the problem that most people lack either the time, the energy, or the interest to do a good job of being in a participatory process. This means that such a process will not necessarily properly reflect the best interests of the community. Indeed, people often put land into trust specifically because they can't take care of it themselves, and thus they want to delegate that responsibility to a reliable institution. The point of the land trust is that it's given the responsibility to make decisions for the entrusters.


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