Thursday, December 14, 2006

Land conservation takes the lead

A startling report from the Land Trust Alliance is getting some national-media attention this week but I wish they hadn't buried their lede, which is that in the U.S. the permanent protection of land for conservation is now going faster than sprawl -- and pulling away.

Last month the national conservation groups were celebrating the current boom in state/local public funding for land conservation; now the LTA has pulled together national data on non-governmental activity for the same purpose. They report that just in the past five years private non-profits protected 13 million acres, equal to a new Yellowstone National Park every year.

The national conservation-advocacy groups say that new development consumes 2 million acres per year, so the nongovernmental land trusts alone are now protecting more land than is being sprawled on each year. Obviously adding the new open space protected via all those new state and local bond referenda, and the occasional addition to federal national monuments and so forth, makes the picture even better.

The LTA report does have a couple of oddities, such as that most of their charts and graphs include only state and local land trusts when national groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trust For Public Land are a huge part of all this activity. And while criticizing the drops in direct federal appropriations for conservation they ignore the fact that all that private non-profit land protection is being subsidized by the federal tax code to the tune of billions per year now. (And the increase in federal tax benefits from donating land or easements which President Bush signed into law in August will boost all this even more.)

The non-profit land trust business is, not surprisingly, booming like dot-coms in the 90s. The LTA reports that even while the number of state and local land trusts was increasing by a third, the average operating budget increased by two thirds and salaried staff increased by almost half. In just five years, during an economic downturn! And that again doesn't count the big national/international groups.

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