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Great Lakes Article:

Land-Trust Boom A Boon for Habitat
By David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens
Washington Post
12/21/03


The use of easements to protect open space has a long history.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought easements in Minnesota and the Dakotas in the 1930s to preserve bird habitat. The National Park Service bought easements to preserve vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

But conservation easements came to prominence only after 1976, when Congress approved tax deductions for land and easements given to environmental charities for conservation purposes. Since then, easements have been widely heralded for helping safeguard the environment, protecting wildlife and making many regions more attractive places in which to live and play.

They also have sparked a land-trust boom. The number of private, nonprofit land trusts swelled from 887 in 1990 to an estimated 1,300 today. The largest, the Nature Conservancy, has assets of more than $3 billion and ranks as the world's richest environmental group. It is the eighth-largest American nonprofit of any type.

Altogether, the trusts hold more than 13,000 easements. The leafy view across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon was protected with easements. So was a wildlife corridor along the Potomac in West Virginia.

The Vermont Land Trust has protected more than 7 percent of total acreage in that state, mostly through easements. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy is using easements to protect 6,000 scenic acres along Lake Michigan.

"The vast majority of land trusts are doing an excellent job in saving land," Rand Wentworth of the nonprofit Land Trust Alliance said in a statement Friday. "But the Land Trust Alliance is proposing new standards to control the isolated reports of activities that do not measure up."

Although concerns remain about the legal foundation for such easements, land trusts have scored many legal victories -- none more dramatic than that won by the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust of Pennsylvania.

In November 1998, after a ruling by a Chester County judge, sheriff's deputies looked on as a wrecking machine crashed through the walls of a 4,800-square-foot Colonial-style house. The judge had ruled that the $350,000 structure near Philadelphia had been built in violation of an easement granted to the trust three decades earlier.

Even that victory had its costs, though: It came after a nine-year battle that the Land Trust Alliance said cost the nonprofit easement holder almost $100,000 -- an amount exceeding the total annual budget of most land trusts.

While hailing the demolition as a milestone for the conservation easement, an article in the Land Trust Alliance's newsletter at the time nonetheless described the rancorous feud with the builders as "a cautionary tale for all land trusts."

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