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Wednesday, 22 February 2006 00:00

Land trusts launch national vetting process

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Land conservation trusts cropping up across Western North Carolina and the rest of the country will soon be able to certify themselves with an official accreditation.

The Land Trust Alliance has formed “Land Trust Accreditation Commission,” an appointed 13-member panel charged with upholding ethical practices for land trusts across the country to ensure the permanence and quality of land conservation now and in the future.

“This is a remarkable opportunity to lead a ground-breaking program that will strengthen the land trust community and foster public trust in our work,” said Larry Kueter, who will chair the commission.

The growing number of land trusts being launched by private developers lately has precipitated concerns in land trust circles. Developers are setting up their own land trusts and placing part of their development under it in order to get tax breaks. A developer placing property into a land trust of its own creation has not inspired confidence, however.

“The accreditation program is a milestone in land conservation history, ensuring the permanent protection of millions of acres of working forests, farms, ranches and natural areas across America,” said Rand Wentworth, president of Land Trust Alliance. “We hope this program will serve as a model of self-regulation and high legal and ethical standards for other nonprofit sectors.”

Land trusts help protect farms, mountains and forests from development by working with landowners to place conservation easements on their property. The property owner keeps his or her land and can pass it on to future generations, but the trust ensures that it will never be cobbled up for a subdivision by placing development restrictions in the property deed. Some land trusts also raise money to buy land outright to save it from development.

There are 1,500-plus nonprofit land trusts in the country. Well-known and respected land trusts operating in this area include the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the Highlands Land Trust.

Longevity is the key to land trusts. As a conservation tract is passed down through generations or sold, the land trust watches over it to ensure the terms of the conservation easement are upheld by new owners. A fly-by-night land trust that could dissolve or fold could leave a once conserved tract vulnerable. Having an accreditation process in place will help a property owner chose a reliable land trust.

“Launching of this accreditation program for land trusts is just what the public needs right now,” Wentworth stated. “In recent years, there has been a huge upswing in the number and diversity of landowners who want to protect their property from future development. And now there will also be a system in place to ensure public trust in the organizations responsible for maintaining their protected status.”

This year the commission will develop the policies and standards for a land trust to be accredited. Tests of the accreditation system will begin in 2007. The program will be fully operational by 2008.

According to Wentworth, one of the keys to a successful accreditation program was involvement of the land trust community. A steering committee of conservation leaders designed the program during a year-long process that included input from local land trusts and reviewing state-of-the-art conservation practices.

For more information on this commission, contact Lawrence Kueter, Chair of the Land Trust Accreditation Commission at 303.292.5656 or go to www.lta.org.

— By Becky Johnson

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