Will Rogers reportedly said, “Buy land. They ain’t makin’ any more of the stuff.” This has long been sound advice for making money. Of late, it has also become a call for the conservation of nature and its supporting landscapes.

Throughout the nation, countless forests, prairies, farms, and ranches in the path of urbanization are being gobbled up in a real-estate boom that defies gravity. Intense development paves paradise at astonishing speed.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, encompassing parts of six states and the District of Columbia, population growth increased impervious surfaces—roads, sidewalks, parking lots, and roofs—from 611,017 to 860,004 acres between 1990 and 2000. At that rate, an additional 250,000 acres will become impervious by 2010 as exceptional economic growth and the quest for prime real estate usher in their usual attendants: traffic congestion, deforestation, polluted runoff, and the loss of natural systems—terrestrial and aquatic.

The difficulty lies in mitigating the impact of an open and robust economy on land and water. How do we conserve the natural world without hobbling a free market and private property rights, which are the foundation of economic and civil liberties?

Many conservationists bemoan the lack of federal solutions to the challenge of land development, especially in the coastal counties where more than 50 percent of Americans live. But their Beltway blinders leave them oblivious to countervailing movements—one based in the private sector, the other in state and local government—that are gaining momentum.

Across the country, a proliferation of private land trusts protects an increasing amount of acreage through free-market tools including conservation easements, outright purchase, and civic education. The trend taps deep principles in the American tradition: philanthropy, collaboration, and social solidarity, which overcome the tension between individualism, insufficient for the task of stewardship on the scale of landscapes or watersheds, and government regulation.

In 1949, ecologist Aldo Leopold published a collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, in which he called for a “land ethic,” a moral guide for individual landowners in the stewardship of their property for the benefit of themselves, human and natural communities, and future generations. He sought to ensure “land health,” which he envisioned as allowing for “self-renewal” in the soils, water, plants, animals, and people across the landscape.

According to Professor Eric T. Freyfogle of the University of Illinois College of Law, Leopold had to confront the mismatch of benefits and costs of private conservation: the benefits were spread mostly throughout the community, but the costs remained with the landowner. He cites an unpublished manuscript, Conservation and Politics, in which Leopold vents his frustration over the lack of success in getting private landowners to practice conservation absent the subsidies or coercion of government programs:

‘How can private landowners be induced to use their land conservatively?’ Leopold repeatedly asked himself. ‘This question heretofore determined only the choice of method for executing a conservation program (for example, the choice between education, subsidy, compulsion, or public ownership). Now, it seems to me, it takes rank with technological unemployment as one of the critical tests of “The American Way”.’

Besides misconstruing the impacts of technology on overall employment, Leopold fell prey to a false, binary choice between government intervention and exclusively individual action. He would have benefited from a familiarity with Alexis de Tocqueville, one Frenchman who will never go out of fashion in this country.

In his 1835 masterpiece, Democracy in America, Tocqueville discerned the American genius for forming voluntary associations, intermediate institutions that mediate between lone individuals and centralized government:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which they take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Whenever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

The incredible growth of the private land-trust movement is overcoming Leopold’s dilemma consistent with Tocqueville’s insights into the American character. It is the collaboration of private actors utilizing voluntary means to achieve socially beneficial goals.

The first land trust was established in 1891, in Massachusetts, by the landscape architect Charles Eliot, to preserve 20 acres of woodland. By 1950, there were still only 53 such trusts in 26 states. Today, there are trusts or conservancies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The recent 2005 National Land Trust Census, released Nov. 30, 2006, breaks all previous records. Total acres conserved by local, state, and national trusts has doubled to 37 million acres over the past five years—an area 16 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Moreover, the number of land trusts has grown to 1,667, a 32 percent increase, over the same period.

State and local land trusts, excluding large national organizations such as The Nature Conservancy or the Conservation Fund, doubled their conservation acres from 6 million to 11.9 million acres, an area twice the size of New Hampshire—an impressive indicator of the local character of this trend.

The census further reveals that state and local land trusts increased acreage protected by conservation easements by 148 percent. These easements—particularly beneficial to family farmers who seek to conserve working farms, ranches, or timberlands—are voluntary agreements that allow owners to retain rights to the land while restricting development. They also provide substantial tax incentives. This may partially explain why the American West is the fastest-growing region for land protection.

If the nation’s land trusts maintain the current rate of 6 million new conserved acres in five years, a total of 43 million acres could be conserved by 2010, an area the size of Florida. By 2015, 49 million acres would be conserved. “Given the exponential growth we have seen historically and in this latest five-year period, these projections can be characterized as conservative,” the census reports.

But buying land and easements is only part of the challenge. Land trusts need to manage that land and honor their responsibilities of stewardship. Fortunately, the census found that over $1 billion in endowments have been established, and the average annual operating budget of land trusts increased 63 percent as of 2005.

An example of such expanded stewardship efforts, beyond simply purchasing land and easements, is the Growing Native program of the Potomac Conservancy, where I serve on the board of directors. This past year, with the support of Ford, over 6,000 volunteers collected 23,000 pounds of hardwood acorn seeds for reforestation efforts throughout the watershed.

The other grassroots conservation movement gaining ground, so to speak, is a consequence of America’s federal system, which protects the vital sphere of state and local government. Here the proximity of neighbors and a sense of place allow for freedom of action springing from an organic community consensus unimaginable in Washington.

The last election is a case in point. According to the Trust for Public Lands, there were 130 conservation funding measures on the ballot, of which 104 passed, authorizing $6.4 billion in new funding—a success rate of 80 percent. This was the most money ever raised for conservation in a November election, and both red states and blue states joined in. Salt Lake County, Utah endorsed a $48 million bond issue by 71 percent. Six city and county measures in Texas, totaling $685 million for parks and conservation, won with more than 61 percent of the vote. Ravalli County, Montana, approved a $10 million bond, 58-42 percent.

As with the land-trust movement, this wave of local conservation funding has a long pedigree in the United States. In 1896, Seattle developed a long-term plan to gain ownership of the entire Cedar River Watershed to protect its major drinking water sources. It now owns 100,000 acres and is restoring old logging roads to reduce sediment running off into its water supply. And in 1892, New York created Adirondack Park, six million acres divided between protected areas and private land.

The efflorescence of grassroots conservation represents an affirmation of the nation’s articulated federal system and the principle of subsidiarity. Like the burgeoning trust movement, it recognizes that the protection of landscapes and watersheds is not Washington’s exclusive responsibility or prerogative.

Fifty-eight years have passed since Aldo Leopold summoned Americans to embrace a land ethic in an attempt to reconcile the conflict between John Muir’s preservationism and Gifford Pinchot’s utilitarianism at the core of the early conservation movement. Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, saw conservation primarily as the scientific management of public lands by the federal government. But Leopold pined for a private ethic of stewardship on the part of individual landowners.

He may finally be getting his wish, as we witness the success of collaborative efforts of conservation, private and non-federal in character.
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G. Tracy Mehan III served as associate deputy administrator and assistant administrator for water at the EPA. He is a principal with The Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.