Land Conservation Basics

Early History

Early in the nineteenth century, developments in American science and philosophy laid the groundwork for an environmental consciousness. Alarm spread over how quickly and obviously the country's landscapes and environment had been damaged by a century of industrialization and resource exploitation, marring the country's scenic beauty, harming wildlife, and causing serious health hazards. Figures like Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon, movements like the Hudson River School of Art, and creation of new natural history societies signalled and advanced the nation's increasing sensitivity to the fragility of the natural world.

At the same time, events like the Civil War and the Centennial sparked new interest in commemoration and reinforcement of a unified American historic ideal. Village improvement societies had begun to address protection of common resources earlier in the country's history, and a few important places had been saved by groundswells of public fervor. But the modern, organized preservation and conservation movements began in America just before the turn of the twentieth century. The creation of more formal preservation and conservation philosophies and organizations was related to the professionalization of conservation science, architecture, landscape architecture, new park-making initiatives, and the spread of popular social reform movements.

The Trustees of Reservations was founded in Massachusetts in 1891, to save both significant landscapes and historic sites. The National Trust of the United Kingdom was formed soon after on the Trustees of Reservations model. Around the same time, protection efforts began for the California Redwoods, an effort that turned into the Sierra Club, founded by John Muir, one of America's most influential early naturalists. Aldo Leopold, trained as a forester, also loomed large in this early history, shaping a new ethic based in wildlife and ecological science. The inception of the National Parks system and protection of the grandest and treasured places by states and new conservation societies got underway in earnest through the early-twentieth century. By the time the National Trust for Historic Preservation was chartered in 1949, conservation and preservation in the US, once unified and still one movement in the UK, had split into their own spheres.

Read about preservationists' efforts to protect and care for sites related to the lives of John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

National Land Conservation Today

Today's conservation movement is very broad and dynamic, including everything from activism to save ocean and river environments, to land acquisition for sensitive desert lands, to the use of federal programs for easements to keep farms in production, and local organizing to create urban parks and community gardens.  The major national players work to build the capacity of the movement, advocate for policies and funding to advance conservation, study resource protection and plan for future work, and directly save land, often in creative partnerships with state and local organizations and agencies. Many of them have regional offices and can provide technical assistance for local protection efforts.

The Nature Conservancy

The precursor to the Nature Conservancy was formed in 1915, and over time, TNC began to directly acquire land and interests in land to conserve its ecological values. They began to work regularly through partnerships with other organizations and with federal and state agencies over time, a model that is central to land protection today. TNC's approach and choice of projects is very scientific, based on the latest research on biological diversity and conservation science. 

The Trust for Public Land

TPL is a national organization focused on facilitating projects to save land for parks, open space, and public enjoyment, at the local level. They help identify places worthy of protection, and they have regularly been part of efforts to save places that include great natural or open space resources that include historic or cultural resources. They work with communities to identify sources of funds to acquire property or easements, and sometimes help guide local funding campaigns, including voter initiatives. 

The Land Trust Alliance

LTA provides all kinds of training, services, and networking to land trusts across the country, to advance their efforts, and strengthen the conservation movement. They convene the land trust movement's national conference, called Rally, and they have promulgated a guide to standards and practices for good governance and organizational effectiveness.The organization also works in public policy, to expand federal and state funding and mechanisms for land protection. 

The Conservation Fund

TCF works behind the scenes to help get land protection deals done. They have a long history of pulling together complex financing for major land protection efforts. They work with state and federal funding agencies and other sources, and provide their own bridge loans, community development expertise, and other assistance.

The American Farmland Trust

AFT is a force for protection of farmlands and food production. They track farmland threats and protection efforts, provide research, advocate for federal policy to save farmland, and work with partners to save land directly.

Scenic America

SA is devoted to supporting protection of the visual quality of the country. They work through affiliates, and provide design and technical assistance.

US Department of Agriculture, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency

These federal agencies host many research and assistance programs that are vital to private conservation efforts. 

Making State and Local Conservation Connections

Nobody understands your impulse to save the places you value like others right in your community, who enjoy them every day. To work with conservationists to save important resources, there are a range of local relationships worth building. Agricultural extension programs and farm bureaus are important resources for saving working lands. Get to know your local conservation commission, an agency of municipal government that usually deals with wetlands regulation and other protection issues, and that may have access to state or local funding for resource conservation. Nature centers and preserves provide education and experience with the wonders of the outdoors, and their staffs are often very glad to deepen their programming and interpretation with good information on how history shaped an area. 

Finally, identify and reach out to local land trust contacts. Of course, the best way to understand and support their work is to become a member! Consider whether there are cultural landscapes that might fit their protection priorities, and reinforce the interconnectedness of land and historic resources. A remarkable number of local land trusts actually include historic, scenic, or cultural values in their missions, but some struggle to actualize that part of their vision. Others who want to address more of the elements in valued places have actually expanded their missions to include historic assets. 

Preservation organizations can expand the effectiveness of their own work by working to transfer conservation easements on their own lands, by working with local conservationists on land use planning efforts, or just by trading chances to educate by speaking at public programs. 

Be aware that in addition to traditional land trusts, your community or region might be served by other related types of organizations, including community land trusts (often created to work on the need for affordable housing, but sometimes with conservation in their scope), agricultural land trusts, watershed organizations, and parks, gardens, greenways, and trails organizations.