WMU News

New book examines conserving land through land trusts

Dec. 12, 2003

KALAMAZOO--One of the most powerful strategies for ensuring the protection of land is the subject of a new book by Dr. Richard Brewer, Western Michigan University professor emeritus of biological sciences.

"Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America," is the first comprehensive study examining both the history and the current issues surrounding the existence of land trusts.

"The definition of a land trust is a nonprofit organization that saves and protects the land by direct action," says Brewer. "Direct action means taking ownership of the land, a view that fits perfectly the idea of land as private property, which prevails in the United States."

Brewer says it is a conservation strategy that appeals to both ends of the political spectrum. "People with a more liberal philosophy like the environmental protection aspect," he notes.

"People with a more conservative view can see how a land trust works, and see it is exactly what they can do with their land. When land is given to a trust, it's a private transaction. The only difference with land trusts is that they preserve land in perpetuity."

It's this distinction of ownership that makes the land trust unique within the environmental movement. Brewer says land trusts such as the Nature Conservancy, which is one of the country's largest land trust organizations, are different from the work done by groups like the Sierra Club, which lobbies governments to tell them what they should do with land. Although these land advocacy groups are important, the trusts don't depend on persuading someone else to protect land, because "by ownership, the trust will serve as the protector," says Brewer.

Though land trusts have been in existence since the 1890s, the movement saw tremendous growth in the1980's.

"The federal government had gotten out of the business of preserving land, and sprawl was becoming very evident," says Brewer. "It was obliterating the lands that we had enjoyed. All of the sudden, places like orchards where we had gone to buy apples outside of town and lands we had walked were disappearing."

The growth in the number of trusts went from 200 at the end of the 1960's to about1,300 today. Many of the trusts sprouted during the 1980s and 1990s, including the Southwest Michigan Land Trust Conservancy, an organization that Brewer and other concerned citizens in the Kalamazoo community formed in 1991.

"I had the idea for the book when we went about organizing the SWMLC.," Brewer says. "I saw there was very little good information out there beyond some of the nuts and bolts issues of how to set up a trust. There was little in the way of why a person would set one up and how these trusts relate to broader environmental and conservation issues."

Brewer's book also looks at the different kinds of protections that can be established.

"There is the simple transaction of land from landowner to the trust," he notes, "but there's also a more sophisticated, but less tested, model called conservation easements."

Conservation easements are agreements that stipulate conservation values of a property will be protected in perpetuity. The easement greatly restricts the potential for further development, Brewer says, and gives the trust the right to enforce the restrictions.

To Brewer, land trusts are the most powerful way to protect land.

"Courts almost always allow current owners to break the restrictions included in a will," he says. "Everything about land trusts, including their culture, nonprofit status and charters, makes them the strongest way of assuring land you want protected stays protected."

"Conservation: The Land Trust Movement in America is a 348-page hardcover edition that is available through Amazon.com and the book's publisher, the University Press of New England, which can be reached online at <www.upne.com>. The price of the book is $29.95.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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