"The Century 21 Of The Environmental Movement
By J. Zane Walley
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) owns a conservation easement that encumbers the small Wilson, Wyoming ranch belonging to former Minnesotans, Ken and Pat Snyder. They purchased the ranch in 1977 with the easement attached to the property. "We had no idea what we were getting into! The conservation easement (CE) on our ranch was one of the first placed in Wyoming," Ken stated in a telephone interview. "We didnít really know what a CE could do to private property. Looking back, buying this ranch with a CE encumbrance is the worst decision we could have made. Iím 64, Pat is 65, and weíd simply like to sell it, but because of TNC easement, there are no buyers. We have had it listed now for seven years and canít sell it."
Ken further reported that after acquiring the ranch in 1977, they were unable to move from Minnesota until 1979. "When we arrived, we found that our "neighbors" in an adjacent subdivision had cut six separate gates onto our land. They thought because a CE was in place, that the land had become public property. Later a lot-line correction was needed to solve an easement problem. I was going to sell land to accomplish the adjustment, but TNC refused to allow me to do so unless I gave up rights equivalent to the land that I would sell. They wanted me to give up the home sites reserved in the easement in return for them releasing the land."
Mr. Snyder angrily remembers, "In 1982 TNC sent me a letter stating that we did not have proper haying machinery and that we werenít taking care of our property to their standards. For instance, no snowmobile use is allowed on the property. The problems go on constantly. We have a lake on our land that is in full view of the highway. It is dry for part of the year, and the public, again because of the easement, believe they have an input into how we manage our ranch, so they constantly call complaining about the lack of water and the fact they cannot see wild swans swimming in the lake. This CE has not only made my property worthless, but also hell to live on!"
Randy Craft, conservation easement specialist at TNC in Lander, Wyoming was contacted regarding the Snyder's problems. Mr. Craft stated he was not familiar with the Snyder easement. He admitted that they did have a file on the Snyder's but refused to share any information from the file saying that it was "confidential."
It is almost impossible for landowners like the Snyders to grapple with the colossal TNC and achieve a measure of justice. Any landowner faces an uphill battle against TNCís immense assets. Their 1997 tax records indicate assets of 1.6 billion dollars including a book value of 784.5 million dollars invested in nature reserves and conservation easements. The non-profit organization's tactics for acquiring property and rights, then reselling it at a profit have been questioned both by the U.S. Government Accounting Office and the private sector.
According to the Government Accounting Office Report of March 13, 1996, "Land Ownership: Information on the Acreage, Management, and Use of Federal and Other Lands," TNC purchases conservation easements and private property across America. The report conformed that TNC has a record of reselling to federal agencies. Information contained in the report shows that TNC acquired 3,051,730, acres and transferred 2,295,366 acres from July 1, 1964, through September 30,1994.
As an example, TNC recently obtained CEs near Ebeyís Landing, a scenic area on Puget Sound in Washington State. In a June 2, 2000 press release, The Washington State TNC stated, "The Conservancy is supporting the Park Service's request for federal Land and Water Conservation Funds for Ebey's Landing. An appropriation of $2 million will enable the Park Service to purchase conservation easements from the Conservancy." Naturally, the Park Service got the federal money.
In a 1992 report, "Land Acquisition Conducted with the Assistance of Nonprofit Organizations," The Interior Department's Inspector General reported on problems it found with land acquisitions between nonprofit conservation organizations (The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, and The Trust for Public Land) and three federal agencies--the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. The Inspector General reported that non-profits reaped financial windfalls on land acquisitions by the Interior Department."
This year, farmers on the Darby Creeks in Central Ohio have been unwilling to become "willing sellers." Many refused to encumber their land with either TNC or U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conservation easements. They presented written testimony to the U.S. House Resources Committee stating, "Our area is under threat of being declared a National Wildlife Refuge by the actions of corrupt officials of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, acting in collusion with The Nature Conservancy, which is attempting to impose one of their restrictive 'Bioreserve' projects on our farming community."
The Maine News-Observer aptly observed, "Environmental groups in Maine are becoming as numerous and irritating as black flies, but one quiet organization is emerging in the state as the most wealthy and powerful of them all. TNC is called the Century 21 of the environmental movement because it has become the real estate broker for government. It's time we find out more about this influential 50-state organization. If TNC is going to continue to exercise its influence over public policy and tax dollars in the State of Maine, surely it's reasonable for them to publicly disclose how they operate.
The Former Attorney of Texas, Dan Morales found out how TNC operates. After hearing evidence detailing TNC financial activities, he stripped them of their Texas tax-exempt status on February 28, 1997.
This series of articles is provided as an educational effort to stimulate discourse on conservation easements by presenting the little known consequences of such an action. These articles are intended to provide readers with helpful information to use in making informed decisions on this highly controversial subject.