Study: Private Trusts Preserve Land and Liberty

Published June 1, 1999

Free from government mandates and cumbersome regulations, land conservation is best left to the private sector, where environmental concerns and individual liberty are able to thrive in harmony.

So argues Robert Franciosi PhD, a research fellow at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

“For a society that values both nature and liberty, it is better that these decisions be left as much as possible to private transactions, rather than political combat in the courts and legislature,” writes Franciosi in “Preserving Open Space: The Private Alternative.”

Land trusts are nonprofit, voluntary organizations that work with landowners to protect America’s land heritage. According to the Land Trust Alliance, founded in 1982 as the national membership organization for land trusts, 1,227 local, regional, and national land trusts currently protect approximately 4.7 million acres of wetlands, wildlife habitat, ranches and farms, shorelines, forests, recreation land and other property of ecological significance. Land trusts operate in every state as well as in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Land trusts offer a valuable mechanism through which private interests can conserve open space. Some trusts acquire land outright, through purchase or donation, while others operate under conservation easements–a permanent land deed that defines what the area can be used for but does not transfer actual ownership to the trust. In Arizona, for example, the five-year-old Malpai Borderlands Group has spent $400,000 to purchase conservation easements that restrict land use to ranching only.

“Land trusts allow neighbors to manage growth in a way that is consistent with private property rights,” notes Franciosi. “Landowners are compensated for their land, instead of having its value taken from under them.”

Among the advantages of private land conservation, according to Franciosi, is that private groups better protect sensitive areas.

Public land is used for a wide range of recreational activities, and it is politically difficult for the government to restrict those activities. “Although some members of the public may be happy simply contemplating the preservation of public land, others will want to walk or ride horses, bikes, and motorcycles across it. They may want to camp, hunt, and fish on it. It is hard for elected officials to deny citizens these wishes since, after all, their taxes paid for the land in the first place.”

By contrast, Franciosi notes, private owners can restrict uses that they determine will have a negative impact on an area. Many land trusts, he notes, prohibit public access to especially sensitive lands they own.

Because private groups are less constrained by regulation than are government agencies, they often are able to move more quickly to purchase or preserve land. Recognizing that fact, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made 273 land acquisitions between 1985 and 1991 with the help of nonprofit organizations. According to Franciosi, those public-private partnerships saved taxpayers some $32.3 million.

For more information …

on land trusts, visit the Web site of the Land Trust Alliance at The site offers a wealth of information on landowner strategies and guidelines for operating land trusts legally, ethically, and in the public interest. A well-stocked bookstore, conference calendar, and links to state land trusts with Web sites, round out the site.