Making a National Case for Community Conservation

2013-2014

Community Conservation is simply conservation that recognizes the interdependence of healthy nature and healthy people.  One won't succeed without the other.  Community conservation is the work of brining diverse people together and honoring their need and desire for connection nature and to place. Community conservation believes that healthy nature is central to the health of people, and the health of people is central to conserving and sustaining nature.   By focusing conservation on sustaining livelihoods, on increasing public health, on strengthening food systems, and on how we educate our children, conservation can become culture and culture can become more rooted in the land.  The outcomes of community conservation are more resilient, healthier communities more closely connected to the land, and a conservation movement that transcends its privileged roots to be in service to more Americans.

The Land Trust Alliance wanted to know how to make community conservation a bigger part of what they do.  And to figure that out, we spoke with some of the hundreds and hundreds of their members who are already doing it: folks who are working hard in cities to bring nature to people broufght nature, people who are protecting their culture by protecting the land that made that culture, young farmers who are trying to make livelihoods on the land that respect nature. 

For six months, we listened to dozens and dozens of senior land trust leaders, potential community allies, and land trusts working hard at connecting lots of different people and nature about what they feel it would take for conservationists to rise and meet this moment.  We spoke with Native land trusts, urban land trusts, healthy food advocates, and public health officials.  We made 17 recommendations, some of which are the Alliance’s work and many of which are every land trusts’ work.  All of the recommendations are “levers,” that if pulled, will begin in different ways to create changes in land trusts and in the relationship between land conservation and community. That was the main purpose of our research: to strengthen community and conservation by trying to bring them together.

As ambassadors between conservation and community, we explained the nature and quality of this occasion, which may be one of the most important decisions that land trusts have ever had to make, that pursuing this work is a matter of choice and leadership, not money or politics. It is a courageous act of leadership to question end goals, to aspire to work differently, and to welcome a critique.

      “The story of all long-term efforts—and organizations—is that they need to evolve in order to innovate and serve. As examples we might look at what the NAACP, IBM and American Lung        Association were doing 30 years ago and what they are doing today. Organizational change is always a slowly swinging pendulum-of-a-conversation between “how” and “why.” How land trusts do their work has been the focus of the last 25 years, and those hard skills are imbued today in the culture and DNA of land trusts everywhere. The question for the next 25 years is why, for whom, and how will they do their work differently to achieve these more systemic goals and approaches? All successful long-lived social, political and economic movements have required re-invention—it is part of innovation. How will conservation groups innovate in the next 25 years as they have in the past 25 years? ”

We offered our recommendations in the spirit that land trusts want to do their work differently and to join other movements for change. The premise of effective community conservation is: to meet the community where it is; to listen deeply to its interests, aspirations, and needs; and to move forward where there is overlap. Some land trusts are already practicing good community organizing. They are protecting the land while helping people to connect to and benefit from it, in ways both tangible and intangible. They are becoming voices to help their communities think about what the land means—culturally, historically, socially, and economically. These land trusts are defined by their local culture, community, and economy, not by a set of organizational outcomes.

Innovators practicing community conservation are among some of the oldest and most successful land trusts in the movement and it is they who are calling most ardently for changes at the Alliance. This is because they care so much about the movement they helped to create. And it’s because they are not feeling supported; they are weighted down by perceptions that the majority of land trusts reinforce which is that community conservation is mission drift.

Community conservation is not mission drift; it is putting that mission into service of new and larger objectives.  Community conservation does require new skills -cultural skills/partnership skills- but it’s still all about saving land.  Great community conservation is great land conservation. No one wants land trust to stop doing what they do best, but many want that work to now be in service to larger community goals. 

Some of the land trust movement’s most important potential allies may not be ready to stand alongside conservationists to do this deeply important work of connecting land and community until they see evidence of structural change.   For e3xamople, the direct and prominent connection between wealth, class, and land conservation has been well documented in this country by generations of academics and practitioners. This information, however, is not well integrated into the story that land conservation tells about itself or the practices it uses to address these dynamics.

The gap between the stories told by conservationists and those told by others who are deeply connected to and love the land impede authentic collaboration, although connection to and love for the land should unite the two groups. This is the sorrow of the conservation movement, of our nation too, and one major obstacle to creating healthy, whole communities.

Land trusts approach this opportunity in am moment of success and great strength. They have protected millions of acres of land, created hundreds of new organizations devoted to that land, and they have drawn the attention and the financial resources of hundreds of thousands of people.  They have proven the ability to innovate, and now their public is asking, for whom have you done this work?  “Let us be part of it. You are not the only ones trying to hold up this earth.  Join us, let us join you. Let’s grow this movement bigger than you ever thought possible. “

This is the moment we believe is facing the Alliance and the land trust movement. We think there are about 50 innovator land trusts, including some of the most successful land trusts in the nation, and about 150 more land trusts of all sizes and ages trying to following them, doing their own version of community conservation because they know how it makes conservation more successful and they see how they are personally growing from what the work asks of them. This is land trusts becoming larger public citizens.

They see what they are doing not as something new or radical, but the natural progression of land conservation.

You can read our full report Land Conservation and the Public Trust here.

Talk with me about collaborating to build the relationships within groups that make our best work more possible.  No coalition or organization can do on the outside what it is unwilling or unable to do on the inside.