During the later nineteenth century, Charles Eliot was a young man working as a landscape architect in Boston. His father was president of Harvard and would be instrumental in founding what would become Acadia National Park. Eliot himself had more local ambitions. But these local efforts set a hugely important, quintessentially American, precedent for private conservation that would eventually spread all across the nation.
During Eliot’s day, New England didn’t get much attention from conservationists. Conserving was something one did to big patches of wilderness in the West, not an undertaking for the long-settled Atlantic states. It was clear to Eliot, though, that the time was coming soon when a majority of the U.S. population would be living packed into cities. He thought it important to make special efforts to help citizens access clean, healthful, beautiful outdoor areas close at hand, where they could gain relief from urban pressures.
In 1890, Eliot wrote a letter to the publication Garden and Forest suggesting that an association should be created to acquire “reservations”—lands “which possess uncommon beauty” where New Englanders could experience rural refreshment. “As Boston’s lovers of art united to form the Art Museum, so her lovers of Nature should now rally to preserve for themselves and all the people as many as possible of these scenes of natural beauty which, by great good fortune, still exist near their doors.” Eliot researched precedents in the form of historical societies and village improvement groups, and then persuaded the Appalachian Mountain Club (see 1876 entry) to invite enthusiasts from around the state to a meeting in Boston. About a hundred interested souls showed up, including influential leading citizens.
The gathering resolved to form a voluntary group “capable of acquiring and holding for the benefit of the public beautiful and historic places in Massachusetts.” The Trustees of Public Reservations was soon up and running as America’s first conservation land trust (the “public” was dropped in 1954 to make clearer that it is a privately run organization). The founders began raising donations, and by 1891 they had already been offered their first reserve, a lovely 20-acre parcel with a stream and old woods in Stoneham (which has since grown into a 2,575-acre section of the Boston metro park system). Today the Trustees of Reservations still operates as a thriving, member-supported nonprofit, overseeing 70 miles of coastline, 270 miles of trails, 12,292 acres of natural habitat, and numerous historic sites, gardens, woods, and landscapes. And it has inspired the blossoming of other land trusts across the U.S. (See 1982 summary.)
- Richard Brewer, Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America (Dartmouth, 2004), p. 16-17
- The Trustees of Reservations, thetrustees.org/about-us/history