Can Land Trusts Be Trusted?

By D. Dowd Muska
  • Monday, May 17, 1999

Since 1996, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has worked to acquire the Torrance Ranch, a parcel of land north of Beatty. Earlier this month the Las Vegas Business Press reported that buying the property will enable TNC’s Nevada chapter to protect "a complex of springs, wetlands and a riparian corridor that included habitat for numerous species, particularly the Amargosa toad." Many people see TNC and other land trusts as welcome alternatives to government land management. That’s certainly the case for locally owned and operated land trusts. National land trusts, however, have strayed from their original mission. Increasingly, TNC and similar organizations act as stalking horses for the federal government. Rather than purchase and maintain land in private hands, the groups buy properties and turn them over to government agencies. Herewith, an examination of the state of America’s land trusts.

Back to the Future

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s R. J. Smith—who coined the phrase "free-market environmentalism"—documents the history of private land conservation in the United States. "Everybody looks at the creation of the national parks, national wildlife refuges and so on," says Smith, "and forgets that there’s been a long and very vital tradition of private conservation that has saved … a lot of very important things, that never would have been saved if we had simply relied on the government." The first land trust was founded in Massachusetts in 1891. Similar voluntary associations soon followed, from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in the South to the Sea Lion Caves in the Pacific Northwest. (Smith has discovered that the first three game wardens murdered by poachers in the U. S. were not agents of the federal government, but employees of the Audubon Society.) Land trusts have experienced explosive growth in the last few decades. In 1975, there were 308 trusts. Now there are about 1,200. Most trusts are small, but several national organizations have considerable holdings and raise substantial funds.

Mission Creeps

As George Mason University law professor Steven Eagle noted, "The land trust movement has been lauded by some as a ‘third way,’ whereby private landowners interested in conservation can work cooperatively to see their land used for environmental purposes, without governmental intrusion or regulation." But analysts who have studied large land trusts closely have uncovered some troubling facts about the organizations’ behavior. Tom Holt is working on a book about land trusts in America. He believes that the four largest trusts—the American Farmland Trust (AFT), the Conservation Fund, the Trust for Public Land and TNC—have abandoned do-it-yourself conservation, and are actively working to prop up the command-and-control policies of the federal government. "I have run across this so many times it makes me sick," Holt says, "government officials saying, ‘We use land trusts because they can do things we can’t do.’" Gobbling up land for the government in the name of private conservation is clearly the most disturbing activity of establishment trusts, but it is hardly the only indicator that the organizations have lost their roots. Many large land trusts seem to have Potomac Fever. For example, in April Land Trust Alliance President Jean Hocker lobbied Congress to increase funding for the Forest Legacy Program, the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. And like most environmental groups, large land trusts are increasingly willing to play fast and loose with the truth. For example, the AFT claims the nation’s agricultural land is "vanishing"—even though U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show America had 10 million more acres of cropland in 1992 than it did in 1925.

The Nature Conspiracy

The Nature Conservancy’s origins date back to 1915, with the founding of the Ecological Society of America. A spinoff of this group named itself the Ecologists Union, and in 1951 it changed its name to The Nature Conservancy. Between the ‘50s and early ‘70s, write Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb in Trashing the Economy, TNC "was as American as motherhood and apple pie, using small donors funds to preserve small selective nature tracts and manage them privately under local chapter control." That pattern soon changed when TNC began to receive big money from liberal corporate foundations. With more power and influence, the organization started to get cozy with federal land agencies—even signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bureau of Land Management in 1990. "More and more of the lands [TNC] purchased were immediately turned around and sold to federal agencies at an enormous profit," says Smith. "And it appeared that some of these federal agencies had known about their efforts and were waiting to purchase the land." As one TNC officials admitted to the late columnist Warren Brooks, his group "helps the government get around the problem of local opposition." And the organization isn’t above using trickery to get what it wants. "[TNC] has been known to hide behind phony front companies to get land from owners who would not have knowingly sold to an environmental group," write Arnold and Gottlieb. "It has also been known to join with higher-profile groups to politically intimidate owners into selling." Well-documented tales of TNC double-dealing abound, from Virginia to New Mexico, Oregon to Maryland. Smith has heard many of these stories during his visits with property owners: "[A]lmost anywhere you go in the country now and meet with organizations of landowners or property rights advocates or wise uses types, one of the things they’re most concerned about is the large land trust organizations." In 1992, the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General concluded that TNC and other nonprofit organizations "benefited unduly" from land swaps with the federal government. The Missouri State Auditor concluded that between 1983 and 1987, TNC "conspired" with land-use bureaucrats in her state, in violation of the Missouri Constitution. The legislatures of Texas and New Mexico have looked into revoking TNC’s tax-exempt status, in light of the organization’s questionable activities in their states.


The Nature Conservancy and other national land trusts have ceased to be assets to the free-market environmental cause. They have all but abandoned the notion that private individuals are the best stewards of natural resources, and instead embraced the view that government is a better caretaker of wildlife habitat and open spaces. Thus, The Nature Conservancy’s purchase of the Torrance Ranch is not a step toward private-sector management of Nevada’s natural resources but rather a continuation of the cozy relationship between radical environmental activists and federal bureaucrats. Local land trusts which maintain their independence would be beneficial for Nevada—almost 90 percent of the state’s land is now controlled by the federal government. But all those concerned with property rights in the Silver State should be wary of organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, which in Smith’s words, "use the institution of private property to destroy private property."

D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s monthly magazine. He can be contacted at

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