Land trusts, or conservancies, are private nonprofits that protect land directly by owning it. Though their roots go back to the 1890s, in the latest generation land trusts have become one of the fastest growing and most successful elements of environmental conservation in the U.S. The grandaddy of land trusts is the Nature Conservancy (see 1951 entry), but there are others operating on a national level, like the American Farmland Trust, the Wetlands America Trust affiliated with Ducks Unlimited (see 1930 entry), the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and trusts with specialized missions like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Civil War Trust.
In 1982 the Land Trust Alliance, a 501c3, was created to help trusts consult and coordinate with each other. In addition, the Alliance conducts periodic censuses of the field. The latest census, funded by ExxonMobil Corporation and documenting groups in existence as of 2015, shows explosive growth of this voluntary mechanism for conserving the outdoors. Land trusts had 4.6 million dues-paying members, plus 224,000 volunteers, and they were conserving 56 million acres (a leap upward from 24 million acres in 2000). Their lands were either purchased with donated money, or protected by conservation easements offered by owners. There were close to 2,000 different land trusts active across the United States, a majority of them staffed as all-volunteer efforts, and all but a dozen or so locally operated rather than national.
Land trusts are nonconfrontational and apolitical, relying on voluntary transactions by willing landowners. In this they differ from “land-advocacy” groups (for instance, the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club) that primarily lobby the government or litigate to regulate or purchase land. In the words of former Sierra Club director Michael Fischer, land trusts use love of the land, not anger at its despoliation, as their principal motivating force.
- 2010 National Land Trust Census, landtrustalliance.org/land-trusts/land-trust-census
- Richard Brewer, Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America (University Press of New England, 2003)