Stewardship Trusts

Intentional communities have developed land trusts
that blend people and ecosystems

One of the articles in Living With The Land (IC#8)
Originally published in Winter 1984 on page 18
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Timothy Clark is an active member of Turtle Island Earth Stewards, a network of 5 communities and about 20 individuals who have been working for several years to understand and practice land stewardship. ("Turtle Island", by the way, is the traditional Native American name for North America.) Crafting legal tools, such as land trusts, that support land stewardship has been a major part of their work. In this article he describes the approach to land trusting that they have developed.

RECENTLY, LAND TRUSTS of two kinds have become common – "Conservation Land Trusts" (that preserve wilderness areas) and "Community Land Trusts" (that are often used as an economic tool for helping people of low income gain control over the land on which they live). A third kind of land trust, the Stewardship Land Trust, has another purpose – to provide the legal framework for supporting mutually nurturing, long term relationships between people and land. This kind of trust is currently being used mainly by communities engaged in charitable and educational work, but the potential application is broader.

What is land stewardship? It is an old idea now finding new life. The farm that has been worked for 3 generations so that the soil is more fertile than ever; the orchard and forest that have been tenderly managed; the family home around which the forest has regrown – these are examples of land stewardship, of blending human and natural ecologies so that the distinction is erased. The new understandings of eco- systems and sustainable agriculture provide tools and concepts that could enable this human/land relationship to become widespread.

Unfortunately, stewardship relationships are the exception in contemporary society. Many attitudes and social forces work against it. Short term economic necessities force farmers to deplete and contaminate the soil. Fluctuating land prices encourage speculation and unwise land use decisions. Tax structures often encourage exploitation rather than mutual nurture. Indeed, some of the attitudes associated with personal property are subtly exploitive. People often feel their property is simply a possession to be used for short term personal benefit rather than recognizing it is a living ecology that should be cared for on behalf of future generations.

Stewardship Land Trusts provide legal protection for the stewardship relationship between land and people. The trust removes the land from the speculative market by placing ownership in the hands of one or more groups committed to stewardship ideals. A "land stewardship plan" is created through studies of the land and the needs and desires of the community of stewards. Covenants are placed on the title to protect unique and special ecological features. These measures insure that the stewardship relationship will continue for generations. This is essential since an ecosystem, on average, takes a century to mature.

Land trusting itself is not a legal process but a concept. Giving form to this concept may involve a variety of legal instruments such as non-profit corporations, partnerships, cooperatives, and legal trusts. The particular Stewardship Land Trust model we have been developing divides ownership of land between two legal entities, two distinct groups of people. One group, the "stewards", may inhabit the land and hold title as long as they care for the land according to the covenants and the land stewardship plan. If they fail to do so, ownership of the land reverts to the second group, the "reversionary interest holders" (RIHs). The RIHs are responsible for monitoring the interaction between the stewards and the land to insure that the provisions of the trust are fulfilled. The RIHs can be any ecologically skilled and sensitive group that is capable and willing to work with the stewards to create a land stewardship plan, monitor its implementation, and find new stewards in the event that the stewards fail to fulfill the trust. This method more completely insures the intent and duration of the trust than if only one group were responsible.

The relationship between the stewards and the RIHs is an important and delicate one – yet also fruitful. Stewardship is not well enough understood to present a clear set of behaviors and actions which can be prescribed or prohibited in detail. There is much room for differences in judgment between the two groups. The stewards, through living on the land, may have greater sensitivity and awareness of it. On the other hand, the stewards will have more personal desires attached to the use of the land, and may be tempted to overlook aspects important to the well-being of the land. The trust document recognizes this potential for differences and provides processes to resolve them cooperatively. It is our experience, however, that this partnership between the stewards and the RIHs results, not in compromise, but in a deeper understanding of how best to steward the land.

Turtle Island Earth Stewards is now developing model legal documents for stewardship land trusts, as well as gathering tools for long range planning processes that can guide stewardship of land. A Stewardship Handbook is currently being drafted which will summarize our learnings. TIES can be contacted through me (Timothy Clark) at 206/321-1884 or write to PO 346, Clinton, WA 98236. Anyone interested in helping with TIES stewardship work, or wishing to discuss their land trusting or stewardship plans is encouraged to call or write.

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