The 2021 Land Trust Alliance Rally turned out the biggest ever, and the virtual format supported inquiry into field-spanning challenges.
Making a project's justice quotient inherent to its value emerged as the mandate for motion in our profession.
Some of our network staff shares what they learned, and what they have to learn.
Several CFN student writers and members of the editorial team participated in the 2021 Land Trust Alliance Rally. Below, some share their reflections.
SESSION: A Necessary Reckoning: Using History to Take Your Conservation Work to the Next Level
This session included three panels, each centered on the question of how a fuller sense of history can inform our understanding of conservation, and what conservation means for different groups. The first panel, facilitated by Dr. Alexa Sutton Lawrence, included panelists Sam Cook, Daisy Purdy, Michelle Steen-Adams, and Lucas Tyree. These panelists each shared their personal and professional experiences with how land tenure and land dispossession have affected their relationship to place and engagement with the field of land conservation. A second panel discussed strategies for conducting specific, place-based research in local historical archives, which is part of the Land Trust Alliance’s broader efforts to tell a more full history of land conservation. A third panel shared the efforts that Mt. Grace Land Conservation Trust has made to cultivate a more inclusive, justice-oriented history of their service area, and consider how their work can better address that history and the community the organization sits within.
The first session in this panel illustrated the lived impacts of our country’s racist history. It taught us how both national and local traditions of heirs’ property loss, inequitable financing, theft, and deed restrictions have destroyed communities’ connections to land and place. Dr. Alexa Sutton Lawrence shared a James Baldwin quote: “History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” Understanding the full history of a place thus becomes basic due diligence, I learned. . As conservation practitioners, we must try to hold permanently in our minds the ways in which conservation and private property restrictions have affected peoples’ connections to a place. Factoring in the cost of conservation as a cloak for dispossession is our imperative responsibility.
Listening to these presenters, I heard experience at a level matching thought and passion. Lucas Tyree, founder and director of NDPonics, shared stories of land loss in his community. He delved into contractual issues basic to most deals, describing a slippery, dubious means by which that land was wrested and controlled by those with greater access to power. His tone made clear how resonant those memories remain today. Daisy Purdy, another panelist and founder of Inclusive Community Cooperative, talked of the need to transform the conservationist’s Doctrine of Discovery, which traces its origins to a 1492 order from the Pope to conquer native lands. She challenged professionals to animate a Doctrine of Recovery instead. This would mean considering peoples’ bonds with a place when defining the value and use of that place. . I ended the panel with more humility about the past our country and our field need to acknowledge- but with more hope of finding stories that show blueprints for a more respectful future.
In this session, we (Sawyer and Katie) also shared a framework we used with the Mt. Grace Land Conservation Trust. We used this framework to help staff and board members of Mt. Grace better understand the history of their geography and the stories of different populations within their twenty-three towns, and asked a number of reflexive questions to encourage the land trust to think about how that history informs their work today. This framework is available for any land trust or property-owning conservation organization that would like to use it - you can access it here.
SESSION: Putting Your Money Where Your DEIJ Statement Is
This session, which I led with Jackson and Helen and Katie Pofahl, asked participants: “how can your organization use its social and financial capital to create more equitable conservation outcomes?” By intentionally expanding the places and organizations through which capital flows, conservation as a practice broadens and deepens with a mandate to expand franchise in a once exclusive sphere. The kind of redirection and altered process requires deep commitment from the organization itself, meaning new mission statements and performance metrics, along with a mission and strategy that support it. That foundation can support operational changes.
Centering equity in conservation finance work looks like a lot of different things depending on who you talk to. When assessing a land acquisition, or permanently protecting a property with a conservation easement, potential purchasers can reinforce inequity if they react to surprises rather than proactively working with other stakeholders. . In land stewardship, a lack of attention to equity can look like management decisions being made with a top-down approach rather than being informed and directed by the community. We can think about surfacing more community members’ needs and knowledge in the way project selection and stewardship are directed in mainstream conservation. Reframing impact metrics with donors, funders and investors can also create opportunities to center equity in funding and finance.
That revision of metrics means intentionally identifying and communicating human health and equity returns, including social vulnerabilities and environmental justice indicators that projects can achieve or alleviate, This work provides organizations the impetus to engage in a larger pool of payors for conservation. What our conversation elevated was the sentiment that centering equity in conservation finance work means centering people first, supporting a whole community, and empowering those people and that community to direct dollars into meaningful projects that flow from their decision making.
Centering equity in conservation finance, like any step in due diligence, often takes more time and more resources to succeed. Yet like all due diligence, the work of listening to and honoring all stakeholders precedes success. Conservation efforts grow more effective if the solutions reflect priorities from all those who share in our collective responsibility to be good stewards of our planet. Proactively and deliberately engaging members of historically marginalized groups in decision making enables traditional owners to chart a path forward.
Most land trusts and conservation organizations lack diversity across all levels and departments, and this environment limits the chances for frank dialogue within our organizations or in the partnerships we form). Our session, in addition to Dr. Taylor’s plenary, made me think more carefully about how the commonplaces of our work culture can squelch or obscure chances to build alliances with groups that have different histories. If we really intend to help oppressed people feel welcome in the conservation community, then practitioners will need to develop tactics and metrics for evaluating and regulating culture.
SESSION: How Landscape Conservation Is Essential to 21st Century Conservation Priorities
Kate Raman from Natural Lands spoke about the Delaware River Watershed Initiative. It was encouraging to hear the scale of this project, a multi-state initiative, and how to put the concept of collective impact into practice.
One of the topics that stood out to me was how to engage local communities for support on various projects. Natural Lands addressed this by using the “modelmywatershed” platform to visualize and communicate how proposed restoration projects can improve water quality and other related factors. Kate said that residents tend to be more collaborative after seeing how the projects can be beneficial to them. Raman also stressed that messaging can relate benefits to people’s livelihoods, as a way to leverage public support for conservation projects.
Locke Ogens from The Nature Conservancy spoke about a solar project on mined lands in the Appalachian area. It was fascinating to learn how the project utilizes the degraded landscape for renewable energy and draws efficiency by using existing roads from previous mining activities to transport solar panels installation and maintenance. The case reminded us that prior regimes can hold solutions that advance a timely tailoring conservation strategy.
PLENARY SESSION: Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Professor, Yale School of the Environment
Dr. Taylor discussed both the troubling history of the conservation movement’s most celebrated leaders and the environmental heroes too often overlooked in the dominant conservation story. Drawing from her book, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement, Dr. Taylor described the racist and classist ethos that Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir brought to their science and writing.
In contrast, she described the extensive traditional ecological knowledge held by enslaved women of color like Harriet Tubman, who navigated by the stars to find her way north, knew how to save and cultivate seeds, and became a skilled trapper. In fact, enslaved people brought a diverse and rich set of skills and expertise surrounding the natural world with them across the sea.
Finally, Dr. Taylor reminded attendees how far conservation has yet to go to be a field of true racial diversity. We measure what we value, and Dr. Taylor urged conservationists to measure diversity in their organization and to make that data public. If we are to truly transform our field, its stories, and our shared impact, there is no other way.