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Conservation With A Body Count

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There’s one thing you can say about land trust work: it’s never boring. With a clear mission, it can be, at times, thrilling, inspiring, and intellectually challenging. But because of its foundation in the volunteer world, trusts are prone to growing pains that can be quite frustrating and sometimes even destructive. The latter is what I call, “conservation with a body count.”

Most land trusts started out as all-volunteer non-profit organizations. They started out with little money and in many cases, no acquisitions projects. History matters, but in our business the genesis days are often dismissed as amateur hours. Today’s boards and staffs often seem to not understand the blood, sweat, and tears expended to create and perpetuate a trust. They often see themselves as the saviors or as smarter than those that came before them.

And that’s OK, as long as they get that land trust work has two primary missions: acquisitions and stewardship. Everything else is supposed to work to push the two missions forward. Even recreation and education, often the two biggest distractions to the core work, can advance acquisitions and stewardship. But all too often, the distractions become the focus because the core work is difficult, involving cultivating land donors, legal complexities, funding challenges, and more.

It’s always fascinating to look back at the dawn of any particular land trust to see who was involved and how the trust performed in its early days. As a fan of land trust history, what I have found was that by far the work was precisely focused on acquisitions and the fundraising necessary to make acquisitions possible. Stewardship was more of a dream back then, as there was a strong sense of urgency to just keep acquiring to stay ahead of land conversion and development.

Over the last several years, the land trust community has found itself undergoing a generation change as the founders retire and new board and staff arrive on the scene. There has also been a strong influx of non-conservation professionals into the business, particularly since national accreditation became a necessary evil due to missteps (and worse) by a few large trusts including The Nature Conservancy. The new people are usually excited to join the work, and that’s a good thing. But what all too often happens is that they bring ideas to the table that were generated in the absence of an understanding of the way of land trusts, or they lack a solid land ethic (not understanding the importance of having a clear land ethic as the foundation of our work). They often have the attitude that the trust was broken before they arrived, and they are here to fix it. In many ways, this is just human nature.

But once they arrive and see that the business is one that requires continuous unrelenting energy, a steep and convoluted learning curve, and a lot of patience, they start looking for the easy way out. Acquisitions, stewardship, and the fundraising necessary to do them are cast aside for donor picnics and programs “for the children” and fancy plaques for existing preserves. Websites get a lot of attention. Everybody wants a free intern. New executive directors (EDs) without real-world trust experience come in and micromanage the hell out of the workers instead of doing the heavy lifting because its easier. New board members recruit like-minded friends who reinforce really bad ideas. All of these things inevitably lead to confrontations when they are called out for mission drift or they do something illegal because of a lack of understanding or they stall out the trust with bickering because its not the dreamscape they imagined.

In my 23 years working for land trusts, I have seen 6 board presidents, 4 treasurers, and 4 executive directors leave or be pushed out for various valid reasons. Add to that the loss of another 6 pro staff, with maybe 2 deserving to be dismissed. The others left out of frustration. That’s why I call it, “conservation with a body count”.

Most of these incidents could have been avoided had the individuals taken the time to learn how trusts work before grabbing the helm and throttle. All would have benefited from taking a step-wise approach in their early days. The most successful board presidents and EDs that I have know have all learned the history of their trust, examined its successes and failures, reviewed how the trust reacted in the face of problems,  and actively worked to unite board and staff. Those who failed stepped in thinking that they were the savior and that their non-trust life prepared them for the trust life.

This ain’t rocket science, but it’s not a lemonade stand, either.

So this essay is kind of a plea to new people joining land trust boards or starting a job commanding a trust. Immerse yourself in the legal aspects of conservation: read 50 easements. Learn the rules: the national standards and practices are a ready made roadmap. Respect and elevate the history: honor the trust’s founders and your forebears. Drill down and get to know those already in the trust: their knowledge is your knowledge and their success is your success. Be good to people: our business can be different than the cut-throat world beyond ours.

Our work is too important to be hampered by noise. If the lift is too heavy, or your vision is not compatible with the trust’s, that’s OK, just leave and somebody else will do it. It’s OK, really. But basically, if you are involved in the land trust world, you have to adapt and give, get, or get out.

May 7, 2019

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