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Land trusts challenged to broaden appeal

Conservation groups try to draw on both sides of the political spectrum to save more than wilderness

By Michelle Cole of The Oregonian staff
When Glenn Lamb opens mail addressed to the Columbia Land Trust, he often finds checks from the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats.

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"I sometimes wonder if these people know they're supporting the same organization," said Lamb, executive director of the Vancouver, Wash.-based group that works to preserve land in the Columbia River region from the Pacific Ocean to the dry lands east of the Cascade Mountains.

In the eyes of the leaders of the nation's land preservation movement, the Columbia Land Trust's apparent bipartisan appeal is exactly what's needed.

At a time when open space is being developed at a dizzying pace, discussions among 1,425 land preservation specialists who gathered Thursday through Sunday in Portland centered on the need to reach out to people who traditionally have not been seen as part of the conservation movement.

Environmental groups have limited their audience by associating with the left and by focusing much of their advocacy on protecting wilderness lands, said Michael Pollan, author of "Second Nature."

"What about the rest?" he asked.

A growing number of nonprofit land trusts are working to protect some of the "rest" by purchasing property outright or securing conservation easements, agreements that restrict development but allow landowners to retain the title to the land and to pass it on to heirs.

But despite the more than 1,200 land trusts that operate nationwide, "The reality is we're not going to be able to save everything," said Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land, a conservation organization that has helped protect more than 1.2 million acres nationwide.

"We're not even going to be able to save some of what we care most about," Rogers said.

In the past, land trust officials have measured their successes by the amount of money raised or the number of acres spared from the bulldozer. Peter Forbes, vice president of the Trust for Public Land, challenged conservationists to look beyond acreage counts or even whether the land harbors an endangered species.

Conservationists will truly succeed, he said, "if we can connect people to the land."

To make that connection, Forbes said conservationists need to reach out to people of all political and religious persuasions, genders and races.

He shared the story of a woman living in Harlem who convinced her neighbors to help her convert a vacant lot strewn with crack vials into a garden and gathering place. The lot was smaller than one-quarter acre and not home to an endangered species, Forbes said. Instead, he said, the land spoke to a shared value of community and connection.

Lamb often hears the same values voiced when he sits across the kitchen table from people interested in working with the Columbia Land Trust.

There's the couple who has grown attached to the skunks and raccoons that show up at their backdoor. They want to make sure the wildlife is protected, even after they're no longer around.

There's the woman who owns the property where her mother's ashes were spread.

And the woman whose view of the river gives her the daily pleasure of watching the seals, birds and boats. She told Lamb: "I know that everybody should have the opportunity to see this."

Though they may have their differences, Lamb said, they have in common the dream of preserving the land as they've known it.

"And we promise to defend that dream forever."

You can reach Michelle Cole at 503-294-5143 or by e-mail at michellecole@news.oregonian.com.