America’s Best Idea was the title of Ken Burns’ Emmy winning documentary on national parks. Ever since congress established the world’s first national park in 1872 at Yellowstone, public land has been one of America’s best ideas. The thinking around conserving a national park for public benefit could have come from more urban parks like Central Park in NYC, opened in 1858. Having lived next to both of these places, I know their value to the quality of life for citizens.

Parks, conservancies, refuges, wildernesses and land trusts are a reflection of American democracy. Public land prevents a ruling aristocracy from subjecting less powerful citizens to the rule of their estates, as was the case in Europe for centuries. Public lands provide space to benefit recreation, biodiversity, clean water & air, mental health, education and climate mitigation. Proximity to “green space” contributes to one’s overall quality of life. In the past several years public lands have been under attack at the federal level, driven greatly by short term financial interests of fossil fuel and mineral extraction lobbies.

America rediscovered the value of conserved public space in the COVID-19 era. Preventative health measures from the pandemic saw the closings of national, state & city parks, campgrounds and recreation areas. Many land trust properties remained open and people flocked to them in search of available, natural areas. Conserved and accessible areas managed by land trusts quickly became very valuable for public well being. These properties had always been providing social and environmental services to us, but now the land trust model was giving the public what they needed when other governmental entities could not.

The United States has a robust and growing network of land trusts. The Land Trust Alliance represents over 1700 organizations in the U.S. Triangle Land Conservancy is an example of one particular organization that has shined during the COVID-19 lockdown. Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) manages 10 preserves around the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. Beginning in 1983, support comes from a mix of sources; individual giving, foundation grants and corporate support. Besides simply providing public access, TLC’s properties host company volunteer teams, school groups, researchers and nature outings. This land trust has established four focus areas for public benefit — “safeguarding clean water, protecting natural habitats, keeping local farms and food in our community, and providing places for people to connect with nature.”

Escaping homeschooling at a TLC preserve

For most organizations, there is a realization that the traditional philanthropic donor model will not be sufficient to create the scale required for our climate action, biodiversity, water and conservation needs. There is a lot of work taking placing around creating nature-based market solutions to provide enough funding and the required partnerships to address our environmental and social challenges. TLC is exploring how it can preserve more land through the creation of carbon offsets from properties it acquires that might other wise fall to development. To do this, TLC must partner with stakeholders who can provide funding and then use the property’s carbon sequestration value to address their own GHG footprint.

From the experiences in the pandemic, many citizens have found a new appreciation for land trusts. A lot of people now value their local conservancy more than ever before. TLC has seen an upswing in new members who discovered them while searching for somewhere healthy to go during the lock down.

The increasing value of preserved, open space is easy to understand when other lands are closed, but even more recently there is a better appreciation for the relationship of preserved land, race and social equity. The tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery and harassment of Christian Cooper helped create great awareness around the problems of African American face in outdoor activities. So much so, that #BlackBirdersWeek was a huge recent social media movement “to celebrate Black scientists, scholars, and naturalists and to increase the visibility of Black birders”.

Educational talk at Horton Grove Nature Preserve, 708 acres in Durham County NC

Years ago, Triangle Land Conservancy began efforts to include race in organizational programs. Sandy Sweitzer, TLC Executive Director states — “to use our unique position and resources that we have as a land trust to ensure the benefits of land conservation are shared with everyone in our community. We do this by continuing to partner with and support organizations led by black and brown people, work with minority-owned businesses, and connect with communities of color.”

2020 has put a spot light on the environmental and social benefits of land trusts. Prior to a few months ago American society was undervaluing them, their properties and the array of accompanying benefits. It’s now apparent that companies can contribute to the communities they serve be supporting land trusts. Government policies that help conservancies grow will produce exponential societal returns for citizens. Individuals giving to land trusts is a way to become a direct stakeholder in the local community, the planet and society at large.

The Land Trust Alliance represents more than 1700 land trusts across the U.S.

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