Land trusts shift from conserving property to changing culture


*Editors Note – This is the first in a series of stories about the growing impact of land trusts and conservation easements on property rights in Maine.

By Diana George Chapin

While land trusts have traditionally purchased property for recreation and preservation, some are now focusing on cultural issues of class, diversity and immigration, which they consider critically important to the future of conservation—and the future of Maine.

This trend has many property owners fearing that land trusts are transforming from conservation groups into political organizations operated by anti-development environmentalists, who then work in concert with government agencies to gain control of private property.

Peter Forbes, founder of Vermont-based Center for Whole Communities, didn’t do much to dispel that notion. As the keynote speaker at the Maine Land Conservation Conference on April 28 in Topsham, he said that conservation is much more than buying and protecting real estate.

The conservation movement, both in Maine and nationwide, is beginning to transition its traditional mission from “landscape scale to culture scale,” he said.

“When conservationists control 4 million acres out of 20, or about 20% of the State of Maine’s land mass, as you do right here, it’s no longer feasible to say that transportation, poverty, food security or how your neighbors are going to heat their homes next winter is not your concern,” Forbes said. “The more you succeed, all those things you think lie beyond your mission become expected of you. It’s the commitment to think about and act upon issues that go beyond your own house.”

Maine and the land-trust community are at a crossroads, Forbes told the auditorium full of conservationists and preservationists. “What’s the role today in shaping Maine’s culture tomorrow?” he challenged them.

“We’re at a critical moment of transition for our movement,” Forbes said. “The Maine that is emerging right now is very different than, say, the Maine of 1970, when the contemporary conservation movement got its start. It’s true that Maine’s biggest changes aren’t necessarily about big [changes in population] growth, or racial change, they’re about how the country’s oldest population transitions to a younger and less homogenous population that likely wasn’t born here, but moved here from away.”

Forbes noted that Maine has the oldest median age, the smallest population under 18 and the lowest birth rate in the nation. “The only way to maintain a traditional growth economy—and I know there are many of you in this room who probably don’t want to maintain that traditional growth economy—is through some kind of in-migration,” he said.

“So what will happen as more and more different folks move here, with higher salaries, urban and suburban values and perhaps a different knowledge of the land and certainly different ways of connecting to it?” he asked. “How will you meet them? How will they see you? These are issues of class and difference that are critically important to the future of Maine and the future of conservation. It is a very exciting time.”

The “exciting time” is being met by land trust groups comprised of two different mind-sets and abilities, Forbes said. “Typically there are two camps, and the first tends to understand those demographic shifts internally and the question they ask themselves is ‘All of my major donors have white hair. Who is going to pay for this work in 10 years?’ ,” he said “Their practical focus is on time. How can we buy as much land while there is money and public support to do so? Their innovations are around speed and doing more and staying the course, and their advantages are that their tools and strategies are really well established.”

The second land trust “camp” Forbes describes has no clear vision of where extensive land acquisition efforts will bring individuals, communities and the state. But, he said, they still have the ability to discern what’s in the best interest of future generations where the land is concerned.

“The other camp seems to understand the demographics more externally,” Forbes said. “The kind of question they say to themselves is, ‘Quite frankly I don’t know who is going to live in this community in 15 years and what they’ll need, but we’re going to find out.’ Their practical focus is on community relationships and public education. Their innovations are around flexibility and community responsiveness. They lack easily quantified measures of success, and there is no map yet for the terrain they are entering.”

For some Mainers, Forbes’ vision is not an “exciting time;” it is unacceptable. They view the aggressive work of land trusts as undermining the system of private landownership the nation is founded upon. Erich Veyhl has written extensively for years on the topic of private property rights and the threat land trusts pose to individuals. (

“The idea of a private land trust—a private organization owning and maintaining scenic areas or wildlife—sounds appealing on the surface and, in principle, could be in a private economy of a free society,” Veyhl writes. “The reality today is the opposite. Almost all land trusts are highly politicized organizations run by ideological, anti-development environmentalist activists collaborating with government agencies for control. They seek social controls that undermine and destroy the private economy and the rights of property owners.”

At the April conference, which was sponsored by The Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Forbes described the conservation movement nationwide—but particularly in Maine—as shifting from “Conservation 1.0” to “Conservation 2.0.” This change is illustrated, he said, in activities of trusts moving beyond their traditional methods, means and goals.

“The language and skills of Conservation 1.0 have been technical, financial, legal, and its goals have been grounded in science and that very important act of counting dollars and acres,” Forbes said. “Conservation 2.0 is about conserving land with a whole new set of tools, not limited to easements or even ownership of land. It has the potential to conserve land on a much larger scale, going from landscape scale to culture scale.”

Forbes says the cultural challenges are and will continue to be a result of demographics. “As every conservation group engages the community more deeply, they hit a wall, they hit a glass door,” he says.  “They face the difficult challenge of navigating difference. In Maine, it’s not overwhelmingly about race, is it? It’s about class and the divides between old-timers and newcomers, the lack of a shared language. Feelings of not being seen and impressions on both sides of being left out.”

Forbes said he hopes conservation can meet Mainers where they are and with what they want and need. “Conservation can become a positive force for community-building when it focuses on creating culture and economy around the needs of nature and people, and when it demonstrates that it values all diversity—plants and animals for sure, but human as well,” he said.

“Maine may be our nation’s best crucible to prove this possible; that every Mainer—especially a recent immigrant—can have a relationship to this land.”

Diana George Chapin is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation family farmer from Montville, Maine.


  1. I oppose land trusts if they strong-arm property owners into conservation easements through tax breaks (why taxes at all?) or if the owners of such easements are at the beck and call of political forces and cronies or may become so in the future.

    In the midst of the very sensible comments about the land trusts, what about the land itself?

    In New York State several years ago, owners of land on the West Branch of the Neversink River were being pestered by the State of New York to  grant right-of-way easements across their land to public (state-owned) land. Further inquiry showed that the budget for purchasing land and easements by the State of New York had considerable money, but the budgeted amount to maintain such land was pitiful and the consequence was (predictably) litter, forest-fire risk, hooligans, and general deterioration of the wilderness to the point that it was controlled by the adventuring underworld.

    Those who argue for land trusts and the preservation of wilderness must convince us that land and easements once acquired will have proper stewardship without being swayable by politicians and cronies forever or I will oppose them. Facts, please?

  2. The origin’s of many of these trusts was the preservation of estates and large farms for the benefit of some of their members who owned or were buying land around the perimeter or parts of the estate and didn’t want any development to mar the view or their rural quiet.

    That’s the money part; what appears to be emerging are new economic powerhouses whose agendas are shielded by IRS laws governing what a non-profit can and  can’t do. Crystal Spring’s farm, for example, is a growing enterprise that competes with family and other farms who have to pay various taxes they are exempt from.

    The law hasn’t caught up with new land trust to enterprise conversions or their growing political power.

    Family farms are disappearing fast or becoming large corporate enterprises, industrial dairy farms w/1,500 cows, managers, etc.

    Now the diversity liberals see a ‘home’ for the refugees they seek to import; and are using the land trust movement to provide this home….in case you haven’t noticed, the Portland Farmer’s market represents an African market place and Somali vendors in L/A have a sep. economy.

    Good? Bad? 

    Maine with the climate warming can become a food exporter. We have plenty of land, but not the labor. 

  3. An important and incisive article.  Strange that the Left, having found that the economy is beyond their power to manipulate and directl, have decided that our culture is so much easier and malleable that their mission is now to redesign it. 

    Would I be going over the top to describe this as “totalitarian megalomania?’

  4. Hi!

    Any time that land is “taken out of the private sector” (land ownership of the people), the higher the price will be for land to build homes and businesses.

    Think of the “forest service.”

    This government agency has bought plenty of land at the turn of the century and beyond, and this agency controls what is allowed or not allowed on the forest service land plus the land that has been “taken out of the private sector” naturally increases the cost of those who want to purchase land.

    There is just so much land on this earth; no more land can be created, and if too much of it is not available for purchase by private individuals, then the purchase price of any land goes up, and eventually there will be “crowding” in certain places or in all places.

    Land trusts are just another problem as above-mentioned for potential homeowners and business owners.

  5. I’m rather surprised you don’t support the rights of these property owners. The U.S. Constitution protects property rights (see 5th and 14th amendments).

     Moreover, the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom uses property rights as a key component.

  6. Could you (or anyone else) explain how land trusts have any connection with Agenda 21, which, as a former Mainiac, now Mid-Hudson New York resident,  I’m somewhat  familiar with and very nervous about? I’m aware of the regional districts and Agenda 21 and HUD connection, but I don’t understand the connection with land trusts. Is this a connection projected for the future? Or a documentable, current connection?  Would greatly appreciate comments. Thanks in advance for anticipated enlightenment.

  7. To the author of this quote, Peter Forbes:

    “Conservation 2.0 is about conserving land with a whole new set of tools, not limited to easements or even ownership of land. It has the potential to conserve land on a much larger scale, going from landscape scale to culture scale.”

    Can you tell me what this means? What new set of tools? And what do you mean by moving from a landscape scale to culture scale?
    I find what you say vague and suggestive of a hidden agenda, myself. What, exactly, are you talking about?

    If Forbes is not a subscriber to this blog, I’d be more than happy to hear others’ understanding of the above cited. I’d like to hear from both pro-trust and anti. While Ms Chapin has written an informative article, she does not explain any better than the author of the comment what, in fact, is being said.

  8. The federal government owns 42% of all U.S. Land.  I know that’s a difficult fact for some but true, sadly. The progressives want to remove the human foot print as it were and have all of rural Maine, Aroostook & Washington Count imparticularly at big park for the sake of recreation you see.  Then move us into condo in the city where they can keep an eye on us and controll will be the main reason.  There is that simple enough.  Join A Tea Party Patriot group as soon as you can and fight this stuff and the Progressives in both parties who are selling us out.
    The state just bought more land this year.  do I hear bonds?

  9. “…Forbes noted that Maine has the oldest median age, the smallest population under 18 and the lowest birth rate in the nation. “The only way to maintain a traditional growth economy—and I know there are many of you in this room who probably don’t want to maintain that traditional growth economy—is through some kind of in-migration,” he said…”

    Perhaps, as in northern NYS, a business-hostile atmosphere has been created through relentless government (Hillary’s empty promises notwithstanding) and environmentalist action, making Maine uninviting for young people to work and raise families in anything other than the highly-encouraged tourist business. Quaint is nice; vast, attractive landscapes are appealing, but these do not put food on the table. I would agree with Kmcaso 100% and suggest that “progressives” might more accurately be dubbed “regressive”, as progressive implies progress. If “regressive” feels uncomfortable and makes you squirm, then try “totalitarian megalomaniacs” – works for me!

    And I’d just like to add that no one has answered my pretty basic questions as to the tools to be employed to effect “cultural change” and what, exactly this cultural change will look like. Are we talking about bear-feeding stations and rest stops for moose replacing auto-repair shops and factories and high tech start-up businesses? My second question is what, if any, part does U.N. Agenda 21 play in this master plan. (crickets) I did follow the link offered by Gerald Weinand above, but I’d rather hear from posters and writers on this site. Own up, Progressives, and explain yourselves.

    Finally, I’d like to direct all your attention to the U.S. Supreme Court finding in “Kelo vs New London,” (2005) which whacked the substance right out of our Constitutional right to enjoy property ownership without  undue government interferance, by expanding the purvue of eminent domain to include the right of private developers to take others’ private land/property “for the greater good, through jobs and local tax revenues.” You might be interested to know that the property  in New London, CT, at issue in the action is now a trashed wasteland, Pfizer having changed its mind about developing it “to promote the greater good.” The families who were removed from their houses on the Thames River, however, remain displaced.

    Does anyone else smell the stink of growing government totalitarianism marrying giant megacorps?

  10. This Land Trust thing is a Trojan Horse. It has already proven itself to be a fiasco in California, where abutting land values continue to drop as people become more wise to this scam.

    As more land is grabbed and the real number of taxpayers decrease, the tax burden is driven onto remaining taxpayers. On top of that, what those abutting landowners frequently find is that new land use restrictions get forced on them as the Land Trust hammers the all too corrupt legislatures into going “GREEN”.

    Just like with Climate Change, many people agree that we all should be doing more to be better planetary stewards, but why is it that the globalists are always putting themselves on the receiving end of every one of these pieces of wealth grabbing legislation. Lo and behold, we now find that the Chinese are after the redwood forested areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains; the very same areas being inundated by the Land Trusts.

    When you see the term Land Trust, think Agenda21, because this is much larger than merely a bunch of wealthy Greenies buying up land; this is a political strategy that has disaster written all over it.


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