Anatomy of a Land Trust – The Concept“The idea of a private land trust – a private organization owning and maintaining scenic or wildlife areas – sounds appealing on the surface, and in principle could be in a free society with protection of property rights. The reality today is the opposite. Almost all land trusts are highly politicized organizations run by ideological, anti-development environmentalist activists collaborating with government agencies for control. They seek social controls that undermine and destroy the private economy and the rights of property owners ...”
Land trusts are typically backed by wealthy, politically–connected owners who retain their own homes – often elaborate, expansive estates – while pursuing land preservation in order to keep or move other people out of their view, out of their sight and off land that the elite has decided to preserve.
The biggest land trusts in Maine are The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – an international non-profit corporation – and the state non-profit corporation Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) together with its assorted satellites.
They are often called “NGOs” – “Non Governmental Organizations” that are technically private organizations but which operate along side of and with undue influence over government agencies and public policy. NGOs are a way to privately fund and influence public policy and its implementation without public accountability.
The Methods and the Result
When direct government action through greenline controls or direct acquisition becomes publicly controversial, threatening property owners' homes, businesses and land – as has happened in Maine beginning largely with the big park and greenline initiative in the late 1980s – the land trusts step in, pretending to be a respectable and professional conservation alternative. They are not.
They play “good-cop bad-cop” games pretending to be sympathetic and respectful to private property owners while collaborating with the more overtly radical activists. Maine Coast Heritage Trust, for example, has done this with the Natural Resources Council of Maine to prevent private homes and force the sale of land to the Trust. The Quoddy Regional Land Trust activists, a satellite of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, have been observed in a Machias restaurant joking about homes they imagined burning down on land they want in South Lubec.
The land trusts use their politically privileged tax–exempt status and government subsidies and connections not available to others to promote and lobby for government ownership or control of vast areas of land. They collaborate with government agencies behind the backs of property owners targeted for acquisition and land use prohibitions. The trusts act as real estate fronts targeting and purchasing property for government agencies, exploiting the mechanisms of the private free–market by buying up land and flipping it into government ownership in order to eliminate the private property and the private market they exploit. The trusts may continue to own some land themselves, but they often prefer to turn it over to government so that the trust can resupply its money and use its resources to repeat the process. MCHT says it does not keep most of the land it acquires.
The land trusts use their vast wealth and influence to gradually eliminate private property owners from a targeted area over time in a strategy of attrition. The first goal of the trusts is to stop development and economic growth on as much land as they can until they can obtain control. The methods include different combinations of government regulation, tax manipulation, and economic strangulation.
Exempt from most property taxes themselves, the trusts manipulate the tax code for their own political ends by inducing tax-strapped property owners to sell or donate land in exchange for discriminatory tax breaks available only to those giving up land rights to the ‘non–profit’ trusts.
Simultaneously, wealthy estate owners who can afford it “donate” land or “conservation” easements – for land that they don't want to build on anyway and can afford not to use. The land goes to their favorite Trust and/or directly to a government agency in exchange for a tax break combined with keeping others out of their view.
The ‘conservation easements’ ostensively claimed to mean negative easements for holding development rights typically also grant the trusts enormous privileges and legal standing to interfere in the private management of land like timberland in the future. This is a tool for imposing, in the name of “sustainability”, economic strangulation to obtain effective control of the rest of the interests in the land when the limited remaining rights are economically unsustainable.
Land–use controls over private property – usually imposed and enforced by the state or politically elite towns on behalf of preservationist interests – are ratcheted up to prevent property owners from using their own land, directly or through economic strangulation. The remaining ordinary owners are driven out over time, at least until there are too few left to fight back and they can be finished off more directly through a dying economy or government force or both. The political insiders typically remain, especially in wealthy established neighborhoods or unless another gang comes in using bigger powers.
The result of these schemes is a combination of feudalism and land socialism – a form of eco-fascism combining politically privileged private interests with government control – under which the political elite retain their own homes together with political control over the surrounding “viewshed” to keep out the “riffraff” and get rid of the rural people. Rural, sparsely settled areas are especially vulnerable to wealthy politically–connected insiders and ‘non-profit’ national preservationist foundations who fund the operation.
(As a matter of historical origins of Acadia National Park, the first private land trust in Maine was the Trustees of Reservations chartered as a tax-free corporaton in 1903 by wealthy estate owners at Bar Harbor who wanted to preserve the lands around them. They donated land but also obtained eminent domain authority from their cronies in the state legislature. Only later, following a local revolt, the Trustees lobbied andcollaborated with the Federal government to create a National Monument on Mt. Desert Island in 1916 to politically entrench their holdings; it was a political strategy not a gift. The Monument was later converted and expanded to Acadia National Park. [See The Story of Acadia National Park, an autobiographical self-serving account by George B. Dorr, the “Father of Acadia”, 1942 & 1948, Acadia Publishing Co. reprint, 1985. The Trustees of Reservations land trust no longer exists.] Eminent domain is again wielded at Acadia against property owners trapped as inholders within expanded boundaries established in 1986; land trusts operating as NGOs buy from the distressed owners and flip the land to their partner the National Park Service.)
Entrenching the Eco-Feudalism with Guaranteed Public Funding
The trend in preservationist land use prohibitions and the demise of private property rights for the middle class is growing. It will become much worse if further ambitions for a national funding agenda are put in place in Washington, DC. Variously called a “trust fund”, “conservation fund”, etc. – even “reinvestment fund”(!) – preservationists have sought a Federal guarantee of money for themselves and for their land acquisition and control at least since the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was imposed by Congress as part of the 1960s “Great Society”. LWCF authorized, subject to annual appropriations, up to $900 million year for acquisition; which has been the primary funding of National Park Service acquisitions, making more condemnation possible. The pressure groups want a lot more money and its use for subsidizing more politics, as an entitlement.
The Trust Fund amounts to a giant government (taxpayer) provided slush fund for government planners, agency bureaucrats, political lobbyists and land trust elites seeking government acquisition of private property. They want a new Federal funding entitlement of billions of dollars per year: The money is intended to be off-budget, automatic, always increasing as all entitlements are, and out of the hands of the normal Congressional appropriation process so as to maintain political autonomy.
The money is planned to be used for both state and Federal land acquisition of private property, including through the use of eminent domain, and for “grants” and other perpetual subsidies to land trusts and other local, regional and state planning organizations to fund their salaries, planning and political lobbying.
It entrenches a permanent and permanently funded political class of bureaucratic elites who have no concern for money and no accountability to the people they control, who in turn are to have no means left to stop the destruction of private property rights of a subjugated middle class across rural America. The ‘feudalist’ elites of Green gentrification are to have their estates and their spectacular views over preserved land in the name of parks for the public; everyone else is to be herded into congested urban areas in the name of “anti-sprawl” or left in controlled Potemkin villages putting on a show, said to be for their own good.
Non–profit, supposedly non–political land trusts – as well as the usual activist pressure group like the Sierra Club, etc. – actively lobby for government funds for themselves and their cohorts in government agencies. In the last open national public battle for CARA (known to property owners as the “Condemnation and Relocation Act”), which barely failed to become law, the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) representing land trusts nationally campaigned for the guaranteed off-budget entitlement and actively fought off an amendment that would have prevented the entitlement funds from being used for condemnation of private property. LTA euphuemistically called the condemnation authority “traditional means of acquisition”.
UPDATE: Donald Trump in 2020 arranged with then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to convert LWCF into an entitlement for government acquisition at the full $900 million/year original limit, permanently bypassing the normal Congressional appropriations process and with no restrictions on eminent domain.
Back to PROPERTY RIGHTS home page, Land Trusts
Last Update: 8/21/22