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Land trusts shift from conserving property to changing culture

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*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. (http://www.moosecove.com/propertyrights)

“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.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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