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Protecting Landscapes: land for recreation and land for re-creation

Keynote speech at the National Trails Symposium, November, 1998, Tucson, AZ

By Will Rogers, President, Trust for Public Land

Map of Pennsylvania

Good evening. With my name, I'm often asked if I'm any relationship to the cowboy humorist. I'm not. But although you won't be seeing any rope tricks this evening, I can tell you that I am a devoted follower of the advice he gave when asked what he thought is the best investment strategy. "Buy land," he replied. "They ain't makin' it any more."

And for the past 26 years, the organization that I work for, the Trust for Public Land, has been doing just that: buying land. We've been working with federal, state and local partners, community organizations and land trusts to bring private land in to public ownership. Land for parks, land for trails and greenways, working landscapes, watersheds and wilderness areas. Land for people.

" For what is a trail without open space for it to pass through but a sidewalk? And what is open space without a trail and the access that allows us to enjoy it?"

As a national non-profit land conservation organization our mission is to "conserve land for people to improve the quality of life for our communities and to protect our natural and historic resources for the future generations."

That's a broad mission umbrella and under it we do a number of activities. We are principally known for our conservation real estate transactions - for the deals we do at the rate of one every other day. With our entrepreneurial approach, and our knowledge and experience with the technical and legal side of real estate, we have, since our founding, helped to protect over one million acres of land throughout America.

We have also developed skills, experience and expertise in developing public funding at every level of government. From polling to campaign strategy and management to communications and media, we have added value in all aspects of the public finance initiatives that are sweeping the country.

And because we work in partnership and are invited in to work on an agency or community agenda, we are good coalition members and coalition builders. We often help to pull together a vision for our conservation projects and then tell the story of why they are important.

We also tell the stories about the broader importance of land for people; land for recreation and land for re-creation; land to provide that critical connection to the natural world. We believe strongly that places - special and ordinary places in and around our communities are vitally important not just for our physical and our spiritual health, but to help us know where we are and who we are. Land for people.

Over the years we have helped protect many nationally recognizable landscapes: the Columbia River Gorge, the Mountains to Sound Greenway, Walden Woods, and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. But high profile projects and a million acres don't tell the story of why we do what we do. How can we measure in acres the impact on people's lives of a 1/4-acre community garden for an inner city neighborhood with no parks or open space? How can you measure in acres the importance of a trail that provides access to a wonderful back country experience?

Trails have always been a part of TPL's land for people mission. We are proud of the trail protection work we have done around the country from the Appalachians to the Pacific Crest. From the Santa Fe and Oregon trails to urban trails like Baltimore's Gwynn's Falls Trail or the Bonneville Shoreline Trail along Utah's Wasatch Front or the Bay Area Ridge Trail around San Francisco Bay. We're working on over forty river trails -- riverways - around the country: along Boston's Neponset River, along the Miami and Los Angeles rivers. And we are working on trails systems in Austin, Asheville and Chattanooga and in other cities and towns.

As a backpacker, a mountain biker and back country skier, trails are my path to renewal, where I go to recharge my spiritual batteries. I also think of trails as paths of discovery. Whether you're following in the footsteps of the Corps of Discovery along the Lewis and Clark Trail or hitting the path that runs across town, the wonderful thing about trails is that while they are fundamentally a way of getting from someplace to someplace else, their importance is less the destination, more what we discover along the way: We encounter nature, we encounter friends, we learn about one another and perhaps most importantly, we learn about ourselves and how we fit into the world around us. Discovery in the largest and deepest sense of the word is what trails can give us. Your commitment to create and preserve these opportunities for ours and for future generations is a powerful and important legacy, indeed.

I'd like to talk briefly about what I see as the context of land use issues and challenges as they affect conservation. Given these challenges, I'd also like to point out some of the hopeful signs we are seeing around the country, signs that things are starting to go our way.

In light of what is going on with the land in and around our communities, how many of us think that we have adequate open space, trails and natural lands to provide for the needs of the generations to come? We all recognize that we have a long way to go. We have all done our unscientific out-of-the-airplane-window surveys of what is happening to the land in our metropolitan and rural areas. Open land is disappearing at a pace far greater than population growth.

Sprawl and rampant growth around our cities and in our rural communities is consuming our important landscapes: the places that give us a sense of home and that give our communities their sense of identity. And what are we getting in return? Landscapes of nowhere and everywhere; strip malls, shopping centers and seamless tract housing - mcplaces.

A further challenge is the significant change in land ownership that is going on around the country. Public utility deregulation is leading to "For Sale" signs on lands that many thought were forever protected.

Millions and millions of acres of timber lands are for sale around the country due to the economics of that sector and the new buyers will be looking for ways to develop the non-timber resource lands in the forests. Economics are also hammering many of our other working landscapes, as well. Our ranches and farms - which both define the edges of our communities and represent a traditional and cherished way of life are becoming for many a very expensive hobby.

And then there's the huge pending intergenerational transfer of wealth. I'm a baby boomer - I'm told that every 8 seconds one of us turns 50. Over the next two decades, trillions of dollars - 10, 12, 15 trillion dollars will be passed down to our generation and much of it in land. The coming impact on land use and landscapes is staggering. Already the boomers are building second homes and vacation homes in new rural subdivisions faster than ever before. Finally there's the new technology that allows people to work in remote areas and commute over the Internet.

The forces and pressures on our lands are extraordinary. That's the context and those are just some of the challenges we are facing. That is why the conservation work that we do together is so urgent. But the news is not all bad - far from it - we have good cause to feel that however enormous the challenge, the tide may be turning - however slowly and imperceptibly. I have several observations which seem to bear that out.

First, more than ever before, people are aware of and care more about land conservation - parks, trails and open space protection.

Then there are partnerships. Not only do they work, but they are essential. And there are a growing number of new and willing partners out there.

Finally, what I call the "WOW" factor: all the individual and organizational excellence that we can recognize and celebrate.

How do we know that people care? The polls are telling us. Last election day the Trust was involved in 15 measures around the country, either through polling or campaign strategy and management, help with media or other aspects of campaigns. Twelve of those funding measures passed, creating over $2 billion dollars for open space protection and maintenance. And some of these measures were in very conservative states and counties.

On a local level, individuals are showing an increasing willingness to dig into their pockets and come up with conservation funding - whether through bonds or sales or real estate transfer taxes or assessments districts. People care more now than ever. And its not just the same old faces. We have trapped in to a much larger group for whom the loss of the landscapes that define their communities, traffic congestion, and the quality of air and water are top priority issues. And it's not surprising that this new support is non-partisan. For we have all observed that love of place bears no political stripe.

This local concern is having its influence on the federal funding level, too. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is showing signs of revitalization. Thanks to grassroots support and thanks to leadership by groups like Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation, we have our best opportunity in years to see the annual funding increase threefold to its $900 million authorized lever. If this happens we will see revitalized stateside and urban parks funding which will allow us to complete many more of our local projects. This should be a top priority for all of us.

But we can't afford to buy and protect all our land and we shouldn't. We need to balance land use - allow for growth while creating a land legacy for future generations of which we can be proud. That can only happen by combining land protection with focussed development and smart growth. And people are beginning to care more about this issue as well - exploring the planning, zoning, transit policies and incentives that shape our built environment. Smart growth plans have emerged in a number of states - Maryland, New Jersey and now Utah, to name a few. These states are trying to reverse the incentives for sprawl and turn the trend around. They are combining land protection with rethinking how development happens. Some aren't going far enough - yet. But the change is beginning to happen. And why? Because people care about our lands and our natural resource heritage and they are speaking up. Our elected officials and legislatures are beginning to get the message - not that conservation issues are safe to support - but that the voting public is demanding action.

So my question for you is: can we take this increasing support for land protection and this increasing focus and support for smarter growth and move it one step further to a point where as a society we realize that the real enemy for conservation is not growth and not developers-both are inevitable. It is the way we think about our resources that we were given to steward and our relationship with our land heritage. We are not going to consume our way out of this problem. The American Dream needs some rethinking. Our vision for communities and home - our community to our cities, the ways were use and share land and our concepts of freedom and mobility and how much we care about clean earth, clean water and clean air - all these will be put to the test and we need to take stock and rethink what's important to us and to our families and to our communities.

As for partnerships: clearly they work and, in fact, they are essential. I will have a hard time telling you something about partnerships that you haven't already heard from podiums around the country whenever we get together to talk about conservation. At TPL, even though we have offices in 25 cities around the country, we will never be truly local. We bring the resources, skills, experience, staff and commitment of a national organization to local conservation challenges. But we need to work in partnership to be effective. Without the local heroes - the individuals and organizations, the agency staff and elected officials, the foundations, corporations and landowners who make up broad based and effective partnerships, we can not be effective. We learned that long ago.

We also learned that forging and sustaining effective partnerships takes commitment, understanding, patience and communication, communication, communication. And we have been involved in many different types of partnerships to move ahead successful agendas in funding, legislation, project and stewardship and management. Public-private partnerships are increasingly popular and effective. Staff at federal, state and local agencies are more committed than ever and they are ready, willing and creative when it comes to engaging with private sector partners and working with local support for the resources they steward.

A note about the need for broad and inclusive partnerships. Working as we do on community and agency agendas in every conceivable landscape from inner city brownfields to wilderness, we are too frequently amazed when conservation partnership and conservationists are unnecessarily parochial - where the watershed or the habitat folks say, "We've got our issues and we don't need to worry about the trails people or the open space advocates - they can take care of themselves."

Not so. We all need to support the vision of a unified and holistic system of lands and natural resources that stretch from inner city parks and community gardens along urban trails, greenways and watersheds to regional open lands to working landscapes and to outlying rural and wilderness areas - hopefully all connected by trail systems. There is no reason to created theoretical boxes around our different landscapes. Sure, they face different challenges, get different use and are under different jurisdictions, but let's look at the whole as one living system that we can all support. And who better to embrace a broader interconnected vision than trails advocates who know better than anyone about the power of connectivity.

And practically, unless our trail systems and open space around the country are adequate to handle the growth and use of the next century there had better be some mutual support. For what is a trail without open space for it to pass through but a sidewalk? And what is open space without a trail and the access that allows us to enjoy it?

Here in Pima County, partnership has been critical. Growth pressures are as great or greater than what we are seeing around the west. Tucson's population is growing by 20,000 residents a year, increasing by 50% since 1980.

The lands that are being lost in Pima County aren't just about scenery, according to Gary Nabhan an ethnobiologist and writer based at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He writes, "What we're losing is more than daily contact with saguaro cacti. We're losing the uniqueness of a community where adobe houses and backyard patches of chiles and shrines to St. Francis were once an important part of our cultural landscape. That is now being overwhelmed by a transient culture that serves no community at all."

In order to stem the loss of critical landscapes that define Tucson's character and land heritage, committed individuals, citizen leaders came together and created partnerships - first the Citizens for Open Space and Parks which reached out to others including the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy to form a broader partnership, the Friends of the Sonoran Desert, which envisioned, created and fought for a county-wide funding initiative to protect vanishing landscapes, create trails and preserve the county's history. The Sonora Desert Open Space and Historical Preservation Bond Act of 1997 won with a 70-30 margin. Why? Because people care about conservation. Now there is a $36 million fund for open space protection, trails and trail head development.

And that was just the beginning. Now there is a comprehensive county open space plan with trail corridors and buffer areas to protect the most critical lands and connections. And there have been other partnerships protecting the truly threatened landscapes. TPL has been working with the county on some of these landscapes at Agua Caliente Canyon, Tortilita Park expansion and at the scenic gateway to Tucson Mountain Park along Gates Pass Road. We are also working together on Feliz Paseos, a fully accessible park just outside Tucson.

What's the message? Partnerships work. Partnerships are essential.

Finally, the "WOW" factor, the very important reason why we are here tonight. We need to celebrate individual and organizational excellence in conservation work. Given the challenges out there and given the urgency of the land use issues, we can draw inspiration from the leadership, vision, commitment, persistence and dogged determination exemplified in our best people and our best work. It is amazing how time and time again we can make a difference. We need to honor that fact and honor the ones who are doing it. From that recognition and celebration comes the hope and the inspiration at seeing what is possible when we turn excellence loose on our shared mission.

And before I turn this podium loose, I would like, on behalf of the Trust for Public Land, to recognize excellence in an individual, a partner, a friend to this community and someone who has worked tirelessly for trails and open space protection. This recognition is also done on behalf of anyone who has had the pleasure of working with Steve Anderson to turn vision into reality. Steve is your co-host, the Trails and Open Space Coordinator for Pima County Parks and Recreation and he is a consistent champion for open space protection and trail development (and an IMBA Board Member from Tucson, AZ).

Thank you Steve. And thanks to all of you for your extraordinary commitment and important and hard work, day in and day out, to protect, to enhance and to maintain the trails that give us the opportunity to connect with the land and with each other.

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