Leveraging Conservation Finance to Advance Equity and Justice, Part One: New Goals

In Brief

Does holding land in trust have to mean holding excess power over land use? 

Land trusts have started addressing the unfair advantages they bring to cities- and some are working to foster equity. 

In this first of a two-part series, meet leaders from within and beyond urban land trusts who have evolved ways to share land and trust. 

Digging deeper than before

A tree-planting project fits the civic focus of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. (Photo courtesy WRLC.)

It’s no secret that private land conservation requires means. Be it grant awards, individual donations, or earned income. For the hundreds of local and regional land trusts who lack significant endowments, conserving a piece of property very often necessitates a motivated landowner with the resources to make a donation of development rights, fee title, or stewardship endowment. While more public funding sources have emerged recently for conservation finance, particularly around working farms, landowners with means and motivation remain a staple of the private conservation process. These landowners are largely white, and their properties most often located in rural and suburban areas. The distribution of conserved land and public open space has followed suit, with low-income communities and communities of color markedly deprived of access to privately conserved open spaces and less frequently affiliated with private land conservation as land donors, visitors, members, staff or board.

Systemic forces have shaped this reality. Land forcibly seized from indigenous peoples could be exclusively owned by white men. After the abolishment of slavery, programs intended to promote land ownership among formerly enslaved people like “40 acres and mule” were rescinded, replaced by reparations to white slave owners to compensate for “lost property,” and followed by sharecropping arrangements preventing land ownership for people of color. Other policies like Alien Land Laws reserved farmland ownership for whites, while heir property laws perpetuated land loss most widely among Black owners. Decades of Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries, vigilante violence, discriminatory public housing and loan policies, and white flight across the nation warped the geographic distribution of wealth and property ownership. Despite comprising 13% of the nation’s population, Black Americans own less than 1% of its rural land.

Their alignment with market forces has aided land trusts in becoming some of the most successful agents of the conservation movement. But it has also made them vulnerable to perpetuating societal inequities.  In 2020, conservancies across the country vowed to educate themselves about equity and justice issues, ensure a greater portion of their staff and board are composed of BIPOC community members, and prioritize purchases from BIPOC-owned vendors. These efforts, while important, are only the beginning. Uniquely available to land trusts are conservation-based actions that can be used to advance more intentional goals of equity and inclusiveness in open space protection, and include intentional conservation financing.

Some conservancies across the country are already scaling these approaches. Told across two parts, this story showcases organizational recognition of the historically racist policies and practices which produced contemporary land ownership patterns. It features the progress two conservancies have made to remedy them.  Across these cases, organizations made targeted shifts in how they educate themselves, develop and deploy funding, and use traditional land conservation tools to rectify historic land loss and remove barriers to natural spaces.

Western Reserve Land Conservancy: Conserving urban environments

 “In the City of Cleveland there’s widespread understanding of the importance of access to healthy, safe, green spaces,” says Isaac Robb, Vice President of Planning and Urban Projects with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC).  

By almost any measure, Cleveland is highly segregated by race. In 2019, 42% of Cleveland’s black residents lived in predominantly black neighborhoods, a much larger figure than the national average of 16.7%. Almost 40% of those residents live in poverty, nearly six times the poverty rate found white neighborhoods. These areas are the same ones which experienced housing value loss due to redlining and discriminatory zoning patterns, disinvestment through deindustrialization, and, most recently, “reverse redlining” in the foreclosure crisis through predatory subprime lending.

Robb joined the land conservancy in 2015, an organization in Northern Ohio with a seventeen-county reach formed from multiple mergers. He says the organization started bringing expertise to urban areas as a way to make its work more impactful. “In Northeast Ohio there aren’t a lot of African American farmers, for example, who were able to acquire large tracts of land. If we want to truly do work that involves diversity and equity, we need to be proximate to it – present in the urban area creating spaces for people who don’t necessarily look like us.”

You can never have environmental equality without human equality and you can never have human equality without environmental equality.”

The urban program was developed in the Conservancy’s 2011 strategic plan and has continued to expand through plan updates centered around urban land conservation and reuse. “It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t without conflict – healthy conflict but conflict nonetheless.” There were board and staff transitions throughout the process and years of training and conversation to develop a common approach to bridge traditional land protection and urban conservation. The first iteration began with land banks, working with vacant and distressed properties and advancing reforestation throughout the city. From these two pillars and a single staff member, the program has grown to a staff of 7-8 people (out of 45).

Strong commitment from the Cleveland philanthropic community made WRLC’s entrance to this work possible. The St. Luke’s Foundation, a foundation established in the wake of a hospital closure that issues grants across its original three-neighborhood footprint, provided early support. Additional funders like the Cleveland Foundation, the Clean Ohio Fund, and corporate donors were also instrumental, along with federal grants administered through state programs and initiatives. When working with funders and speaking about his work, Robb notes, “connecting the dots is key” – drawing connections between history and the present shape and distribution of benefits and costs surrounding access to land.

Managing opportunity costs requires visionary and enduring leadership. Given the limited nature of any land trusts’ financial resources and the urgency intrinsic to their missions, there can be hard decisions involved in allocating funding away from high-acreage natural resource protection. Yet, even as WRLC’s wilderness and working land conservation teams race against threats of development and climate change, Robb believes the organization would remain able to fund the urban program if its grant support were to fluctuate. “In some ways it’s easier to get people excited about an urban or suburban park that hundreds more people will visit, as opposed to another hundred acres only a handful of people will see in a year.”

Robb and his colleagues identified organizational barriers to urban work. He shares that some land conservancies may set minimum acreage policies for parcels on which they will consider holding conservation easements - say, 20 acres. “If that’s our restriction, we would rarely do projects in the urban area.” He’s also found the need to compare unlike projects, since a 150-acre farm with a 50-acre stream corridor shares little in ecological terms with a handful of half-acre urban parcels.

With this in mind, Robb created an urban project selection guideline, defining metrics for suitable urban projects. Approved by the board and used consistently, it helps Robb and his team determine the projects which will advance the organization’s stated goals. After acquisition, misalignment may persist. They’ve had to reconsider the impact of potential restrictions and covenants once placed on properties and examine how their database is structured to favor traditional acquisition projects, making urban lands harder to input and track.

Recently, WRLC’s Urban Program has begun implementing a “flipped” model, devoting the majority of project funds to property improvements. “This year we’re submitting a project called the Garden of Eleven Angels on 8 small parcels, a total of 0.8 acres, in one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Cleveland, which is one of the poorest cities in America.” It’s public space envisioned to honor the memory of eleven women who were tragically murdered, and is the product of a decade-long movement dedicated to recognizing these victims and their families. In partnership with the local community development corporation – a strongly African-American-led organization – WRLC is co-applying for grant funding to make the Garden possible. In total, the properties’ acquisition values are $1500, but the organizations are applying for $150,000 for on-site enhancement to make this a safe green space for the community. “It’s one thing to craft a DEIJ statement, but it’s another to ask what kinds of projects are we selecting, and what kind of resources are we putting there?”

Robb and his team examined the funder’s giving history and the composition of its grantmaking panel. “This grant source provides $3.5 million to our county and $35 million across our state annually, but directs less than 5% of their awards to areas with high concentrations of poverty.” Trends like this can significantly impact Black-led nonprofits across all sectors. Across the country, Black-led nonprofit organizations receive 24% less revenue on average than their white-led counterparts and have 75% fewer unrestricted net assets.

Another joint application comes in partnership with the East End Neighborhood House: a social services provider for a 90+% African American community which lacked an outdoor gathering space. Robb and his team are working with the organization to apply for regional sewer district funding to put toward outdoor improvements. “The language in the grant focused on a project led by East End. We felt that with our development and fundraising teams and technical, transaction expertise, we could be a good partner.”  The collaboration provides East End Neighborhood House with exposure to and standing with new partners and grant sources.

“Get into the community and start by asking what projects these groups would like to see done, ask ‘where do you see us fitting in,’ then find the overlap.” That’s part of what makes these partnerships authentic: shared power, co-created priorities, and mutual respect.

“It can’t be us coming in and saying what this needs to be, it has to come from the community.”

Robb stresses the importance of the partnerships WRLC has formed with neighborhood associations, land banks, community development corporations, community land trusts, and the City. When it comes to their work in Cleveland, the organization set a goal to reach 30% tree canopy cover by 2040 and create solutions for 30,000 vacant parcels, all while building community through this land.

Grandfather Mountain North Carolina
In the South, the Triangle Land Conservancy keeps its rhetoric and outreach close to the ground.

Triangle Land Conservancy: Righting land wrongs

“For an organization in the south, the separation between racism and conservation is never available to you,” says Margaret Sands, Conservation Director at the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC). “There’s no way to say that was then and this is now.”

TLC is a land trust serving six counties in North Carolina’s Triangle Region, including the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. The organization’s focus on racial justice began with the protection of the Horton Grove Nature Preserve in 2012. Once part of the Stagville Plantation, one of the state’s largest plantations, the preserve’s name refers to the area where enslaved peoples lived. “But we couldn’t just name the preserve Horton Grove,” says Sands, especially if no one knew what that name meant.

Instead, the organization recognized a greater responsibility to honor  people who were enslaved there, and who were left out of both their typical chain-of-title research and the generational wealth that land ownership creates. The trails at Horton Grove are named after Black families whose ancestors were forced to work on the land. Their stories are shared across the preserve on kiosks thanks to the research of Historic Stagville, an abutting historic site. TLC invited and honored the descendants of the enslaved families still in the area today at the preserve’s grand opening

In 2016, the organization’s staff and board members took the next step to educate themselves through trainings with the Racial Equity Institute on the history of white supremacy and its influence on laws and policies. This collective learning was a process. “And it was hard,” Sands shares. “Everyone came from a different starting place.” After that initial training, staff had different reactions: remorse, urgency, uncertainty.

“We are participants in a white dominance system and the history of land conservation has perpetuated it.”

For some, history can be a sticking point, Sands acknowledges. While it’s true that the land conservancy welcomes everyone at their nature preserves, there are persistent barriers to access, comfort, and safety in the outdoors. Christian Cooper’s experience in Central Park in May 2020 is only one instance of racially-motivated discrimination that people of color have long faced in respect to land.

In 2018, TLC formalized its equity commitments as a focus across its strategic action plan’s impact areas of “clean water, people and nature, and local farms and food.” TLC is working to ensure the organization’s composition is reflective of the community it’s poised to serve. “The Triangle in particular is very diverse with a very young population, and Durham is a city with no ethnic majority. We need to make sure the work we are doing is reflective of that population.” Beyond the composition of their staff and board, TLC began considering who visits TLC preserves, the partners they collaborate with, the participants in their education programs, their volunteers, financial donors, and, finally, their land donors. Among other homogenies, they noticed a strong white majority among their land and easement donors.

 “While it’s a great investment for anyone when TLC purchases an easement on their farm, the process can take two to three years. Someone has to be financially stable enough to wait that out.” This is just one of numerous barriers which persist throughout the process. The very concept of a conservation easement may not be appealing to a population that has been misled by the government and other power brokers when it comes to land ownership, Sands offers. “Why would we be any more trustworthy than those groups who have stimulated land loss?” With this in mind, Sands and her colleagues considered how to best use the tools at their disposal to try to right the wrongs of land loss in their service area and increase Black land ownership.

 “Land access is a real problem in the Triangle area, as young farmers compete with developers for land at high costs,” says Sands. “I do a lot of outreach events and people are always coming up to the table asking ‘how can I get land?’” If they had land, she notes, she could help conserve it, or she could help create a lease on existing TLC land – typically at a very low or no cost. TLC has lease agreements with several groups, including a group of Burmese refuges and a coalition of Black farmers devoted to educating their community about healthy foods. “But a tenant pointed out to us that TLC is still the landowner, the land lord. Though we don’t benefit from equity, it’s preventing equity for our tenants and mirroring exploitative relationships of the past like sharecropping.”

Sands is excited to explore how TLC can use models like buy-conserve-sell to create land opportunities for farmers of color. The model centers around purchasing at-risk lands, placing them under permanent conservation easements, then reselling them at reduced value, thanks to the easement restriction, to farmers and foresters of color. “It involves financial risk,” she says. “I’d pitched it before, but now we have more donors interested and willing to take that risk with us.” Thanks to years educating its members and donors about equity through publications, events, and partnerships, the connection between racial justice and land conservation has been well established.

“Our donor education goes back to the idea that if we are trying to share the benefits of land conservation with our community, we need to make sure they’re accessible to everyone in our community.”

TLC is currently pursuing a pilot project to test the model and ensure its compliance with LTA accreditation rules and IRS conservation easement laws. The project will also involve identifying and directing financial resources to landowners of color to decrease barriers to the traditional easement purchase process, evaluating lands already owned by TLC that could be placed under conservation easement and then transferred to another owner, and collaborating more closely with landowners of color to provide training and stewardship resources. While other groups have pursued pieces of this idea, including through reparations and land justice, it hasn’t been done as a whole.

Partnership remains a focal point in TLC’s strategy. They devote part of their annual budget and an AmeriCorps member’s service to providing positive experiences in nature to adult groups, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in their area, and local K-12 schools – a program they hope to grow by 50% in 2025. They also work collaboratively with fellow conservation groups in the region to protect the City of Raleigh’s drinking water, connect and conserve underground railroad sites, and host collaborative landowner outreach events. They work closely with municipal and state-level planners to more deeply consider the communities who historically bear the brunt of development and public infrastructure’s ill effects.

Learning is part of the process, Sands concludes, and will continue to be. “Taking these blinders off will be a lifelong struggle.” Her advice to other land trusts, she says, is to explore the history of the land a trust is working to conserve and how it impacts people and land distribution today. “Coming back to that connection always helps to ground our efforts and remind doubters that although these are national and political issues now, they are also very intertwined with land protection and stewardship.”

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In response to the many examples of racial injustices made visible in 2020, conservationists have another opportunity to make the impacts of their work more equitable, just, and relevant to a wider audience. Both in Cleveland and the Triangle, sensitivity, a strong financial foundation of support, and organizational comprehension around systemic land-based patterns of discrimination have enabled work around diversity, equity and justice. While continuing to educate themselves on issues of inequity, conservationists can begin restructuring internal policies, paradigms, and frameworks to make possible new kinds of projects, formalized goals, and metrics for widened work.

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