Land Trusts and Park Conservancies

Land Trusts and Park Conservancies: In the Same Business…or Not?

Peter Harnik, Director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence (CCPE) – a sponsor of this blog site – recently spoke to attendees of the New Jersey Land Conservation Rally in a keynote address about some of the differences he observes between the work of city parks conservancies and land trusts. Peter contrasted the work of the land trust movement with the city parks movement in part by addressing the density and diversity elements of land conservation/park creation efforts across the geographic spectrum.

Peter suggested that density might have a lot to do with what happens on land conserved by land trusts or with land managed by city park conservancies; he also suggested that the type of land involved – undeveloped natural resources versus re-created parkland that may have formerly been a vacant lot or railroad right of way – might change the focus, tools and methods of working for each organization.

His comments prompted me to think about public-private partnerships in the context of the missions of these two kinds of organizations. And especially with regard to their separate focus on what comes first – land or people?

City park conservancies are most often partners to local or state governments who own parkland. Conservancies play a role in managing, maintaining, programming and restoring that land but they usually don’t own it. Land trusts, on the other hand, own their land – or they own a conservation easement on that land. In both cases they assume a stewardship responsibility for the property in perpetuity that goes beyond just management and maintenance.

The mission of land trusts generally puts land first – their work is about protecting land for its different values for public benefit. Sometimes that benefit includes public access, usually for passive use, but often it does not, as in the case of a conservation easement over private land. City park conservancies have missions that start with a focus on people – after all they’re not landowners. Their work is also about land – restoring, developing and operating parkland – but it is mostly about getting people out on the property for just about every kind of recreation use you can name.

A focus on land for land trusts means a focus on landscapes, natural resource protection and the preservation of an ecosystem. Challenges involve choices around land management protocols and science-driven solutions – and less around meeting park and recreation needs. City parks conservancies are also focused on land – generally restoring land – but their primary focus is on programming that land for public use. Most conservancies I talk with program their parks for hundreds of events every year.

But land trusts are increasingly being called upon to expand their role and partner on what Rand Wentworth, President of the Land Trust Alliance, calls ‘community conservation’ for its responsiveness not so much to natural resource challenges but to public need. In the latest issue of LTA’s magazine, Saving Land, his President’s column talks about “people-powered parks”:

In New York State, the Columbia Land Conservancy acquired preserves for public hiking and recreation since the county does not have a public park system. Then it hired educators to offer field trips and environmental education for cash-strapped local schools. We are calling this kind of work “community conservation” because it is responsive to the concerns of local communities and serves broader public needs. Community conservation starts when a land trust listens to the concerns and hopes of its neighbors and builds lasting relationships to help with public health, education, economic development and affordable housing.

The Columbia Land Conservancy is a good example of a land trust that sounds more like a park conservancy. They manage ten “Public Conservation Areas” available free of charge for recreation – trails for walking, picnic spots, and fishing places. In all, the Conservancy provides 2,300 acres of land for public use, acknowledging that, “…these areas are heavily used. They serve, in effect, as the county’s park system – at no cost to the county.” They run an outdoor education program that serves 3000 visitors annually and they work with the county on land use planning and land management policies for strategic conservation and recreation opportunities.

The Land Trust of Napa County California has a mission statement about “Connecting people with land…” and a Parks for People Program in which they’ve preserved 26,000 acres as 8 public parks and recreation areas. The Trustees of Reservations, working across Massachusetts is the oldest land trust in the country managing over 25,000 acres in towns and cities across the state, including historic properties, natural resources, and trails and recreation sites. In Boston, the Trustees partner with the Boston Natural Areas Network on programming their land with recreation, gardening and education opportunities.

In 2005, the Conservation Trust of North Carolina reflecting on the racial and ethnic make-up of the population of North Carolina in contrast to the members of the conservation community, realized a disparity between the people protecting land and the people who live, work and play on it and they launched their Conservation and Diversity Program.

Since the inception of the program, CTNC has awarded more than $200,000 in small grants to local land trusts for diversity projects which have had an impact on the direction of land trust outreach and growth. Three of the four innovations that North Carolina land trusts identified in 2011 as ways to help them succeed included,

  1. Opening their assets to the public
  2. Connecting kids and nature
  3. Broadening the base of their support through new partnerships

That sounds a lot like the work of city park conservancies to me with its focus directed more to increasing park usership. But Peter is probably right – for the moment – that the density and diversity of people served by parks in cities offers up unique challenges for park conservancies, even if land ownership isn’t one of them. They are rightly focused first, on public use of parkland, public health, and the way that green space can enhance livability where people live.

As land trusts become increasingly interested in connecting people to land and focusing themselves on programs and facilities for public recreation, health and wellness and education, it is likely that park conservancies will have a lot to share with them; there may even be some partnerships between land trusts and city park conservancies. City park conservancies know not only the value of public engagement but how to balance heavy public use with keeping land healthy and beautiful and productive – and how to develop partnerships to enhance that work; land trusts are just starting to learn how a little more engagement might get them big returns. More from Rand Wentworth:

Across the country, land trusts have found that community conservation expands the scale and impact of their conservation work. By engaging and serving the broader community, land trusts have seen increases in fundraising, public support and political influence. Land trusts that implement community conservation practices are reporting membership growth from 33% to 72% within five years.

It is also true of course that land trusts with their focus on land management have some things to share with park conservancies who are increasingly being called upon to assume more of the land management responsibilities on public parkland. Things like ways that parks can be considered green infrastructure for water management through wetland protection and flood control solutions; ways to manage forest restoration; and, ways to build climate change strategies or wildlife protection corridors into park management.

Maybe the next meetings of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the Land Trust Alliance and the City Parks Alliance should include a cross-section of this mix of practitioners. After all, Peter’s comments notwithstanding, we’re all in the same business even if our focus is slightly different.