Lessons For Stewards

A Waldorf school finds out the difference
between stewarding and owning

One of the articles in Living With The Land (IC#8)
Originally published in Winter 1984 on page 19
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute


We, the Summerfield community and Turtle Island Land Stewardship Society, recognize that this land bordering Santa Rosa Creek and the Laguna nature area is a living part of the whole earth, and that it has unique potential for integrated, mutually beneficial relationships among the respective pursuits of nature, agriculture, and education.

We therefore enter into this covenant to protect these potentials and to work actively for their fulfillment, for their own sake and for that of the world. Our expressed intention is to remove this land from the exploitive relationships often embodied in the concept of "ownership" and to place it forever into a truly mutual relationship embodied in the concept of "stewardship."


This excerpt from the Stewardship Land Trust agreement between the Summerfield Waldorf School of Santa Rosa, California, and the Turtle Island Land Stewardship Society (TILSS) of British Columbia, Canada, encapsulates the culmination of the school’s search for an appropriate legal relationship to its new home.

What led us to take the step of committing our land to a stewardship trust? In a Waldorf School the teachers are particularly aware of the influence of their own character and actions on the children. With this in mind it seemed imperative that we discover and demonstrate an appropriate relationship to the land which was the home of the school, and that the children grow up with new assumptions about how land is to be regarded and treated.

Summerfield’s new home had previously been a 32-acre horse ranch in Sonoma County where the productive land and open space are being rapidly and irreversibly consumed by the steady urban development northward from San Francisco. On this frontier of sorts, it seemed symbolic that the school was bounded on the South by expensive homes, and on the north by a wooded stream and farming operation. These considerations combined to create a persistent commitment by the parents and teachers at Summerfield to explore new legal forms that could give expression to our ideals.

In doing this, we had the professional assistance of several experienced land trust organizations: Sonoma County Land Trust, Trust for Public Land, both of California, and Turtle Island Land Stewardship Society (TILSS), of British Columbia, Canada. Their help was invaluable, but it did not save us from having to face a number of major issues that were brought to the surface within the Summerfield community by this exploration of alternatives to ownership.

We have since joined with TILSS and other land trust stewards in the formation of a group which we call Turtle Island Earth Stewards. Through our participation in TIES it has become clear that most of the issues Summerfield had to deal with were important in other groups as well.

Can It Be Done? Perhaps the most basic issue is simply, can an assumption as powerful as that contained in the rights of the landowner be changed? History offers a lot of encouragement, for there are many examples of major changes that were "unimaginable" when first proposed. At TIES we reminded ourselves that as recently as 1860, keeping slaves was assumed by many as a fact of life – a right of ownership. At first only a few took the initiative to deny this "fact of life," but they persisted until enough others joined them, a critical mass was reached, and the facts of life were changed.

Finding Consensus Trying to clarify values and ethics in a group isn’t easy. We at Summerfield could all remember meetings which seemed to go around in circles. Our breakthrough came with one meeting of interested parents, teachers, and board members that was facilitated by two members of TILSS. They suggested each person write a statement that described our relationship to the land as he or she saw it. Each statement was read aloud by the facilitator without revealing the author. By preserving and consolidating those statements which met with consensus, we arrived at a document which was a reflection of the whole group. It enabled us to move forward much more smoothly, and it became the tangible basis for all further interpretation of our ideals into a legal document.

The Legal Mechanism Especially in the beginning, the question arose of the need for a legal document at all. Some asked why we couldn’t trust ourselves and those who followed to act responsibly out of their own judgment and conscience.

We decided, however, that a document would give us a structure within which we would tend to work more conscientiously than we might otherwise; and which we ultimately hoped would act to keep us on an even keel, preventing rash and irreversible actions in the inevitable ups and downs of our commitment to the ideals.

Of the legal choices considered by Summerfield, one was the tried and proven conservation easement. This simple, straightforward approach is a fundamental tool of land protection: An individual or group may restrict their use of the land by conveying certain rights such as development, timber, subdivision, etc. to another group (usually a land trust organization). Ownership is retained, and if the land is sold, the restrictions apply to the new owner.

At Summerfield we chose, however, to create a Stewardship Covenant with a Reversionary Interest. This stewardship covenant enabled us to construct guidelines which contained responsibilities as well as restrictions. It commits us to an active, integral relationship with the land, rather than merely "protecting" it.

The Reversionary Interest part meant the inclusion of a second party to whom the ownership would revert if we failed to fulfill our responsibility as stewards. It is also their role to notice and intervene (possibly with positive assistance) in the event that we are neglecting some aspect of our covenant. Having this second group broadens our frame of reference, and we’ve come to regard them more as a godparent than a policeman. We’ve also provided in our document for the possibility of changing or amending guidelines so long as both parties agree.

Even though more complex than the conservation easement, we preferred the living qualities of this agreement with a more involved second party. The possibility of being replaced if we defaulted reinforced the concept that stewards, unlike an owner, are entitled to the privileges of the land use only so long as… (to use the legal terminology) they also meet their responsibilities to the land.

Perpetuity The land trust agreement includes ecological statements (called covenants) to give guidance to the future management of the land. These covenants are placed on the title of the land, and will be legally binding forever – "in perpetuity." To make sure that these covenants are followed, we needed to create a land trust organization (as reversionary interest holder) which would still be around to help new stewards understand and agree to honor the covenants. Initially, Turtle Island Land Stewardship Society was to be the land trust group which held this guardian responsibility. But we had to continually ask ourselves what gave any guarantees that TILSS would have a life longer than any of the other communities?

Out of that dilemma, we created Turtle Island Earth Stewards (TIES) as a coalition of all the groups of stewards associated with TILSS, and made TIES the new land trust organization. With a membership made up of many organizations, any one or two could fold and the land trust would still have life.

Another question related to perpetuity is how to design these perpetual covenants so the original ecological intent is never lessened, but with a possibility for changing them as our knowledge about how to work in harmony with the land increases. We are creating strong statements of our intentions as a reference point for any future changes which must be agreed consensually by the stewards and TIES.

Enforcement Words such as monitoring, policing and so on can connote an antagonistic relationship between the land steward and the holder of the reversionary interest. In TIES we’re exploring ways to create a positive, helpful relationship with the reversionary interest holder as a guardian who could help get the steward back on the track if necessary. We are trying to develop a structure and process for the relationship between TIES and the land stewards which will have the tone of a partnership in which we maintain a compassionate understanding of the practical aspects of implementing the stewardship responsibility, and be able to determine the difference between a temporary difficulty in fulfilling the responsibilities and a real change of heart on the part of the steward.

At Summerfield we developed methods of arbitration in our documents as a means of resolving disagreement or breakdown in communications. We realized that if we did not provide for a process ourselves, our recourse would be the courts – a costly procedure that puts us into the hands of a system whose attitudes towards land and ownership are generally different from ours. Through TIES we are constantly looking for more effectively creative and cooperative forms of conflict resolution.

Financing In the beginning some parents at Summerfield resisted the land trust on the basis that we may need the land for collateral. Many groups share our very practical problems of financing, especially when they wished to construct buildings. When one thinks in terms other than ownership, it becomes the responsibility of stewards to find alternative methods of financing, and it is advantageous to work cooperatively with other groups to that end. We’ve studied the idea of a revolving loan fund which operated from the interest on an endowment built from the contributions and fundraising efforts of the stewards themselves, but we have not really resolved this issue yet. It is clear that as we move away from thinking in terms of land being used as a commodity and as collateral we have to rethink some of the basic assumptions which are deeply ingrained in our psyches and our society.

Continuity We discovered the need to convey the values and commitment of the land trust to new members who come into the group and onto the land as stewards. At TIES we planned ways in which stewards would assist each other to communicate the history and details of the land trust to new members through frequent visits and occasional conferences at each site. We are also starting to create a stewardship handbook which will spell out the principles of the land trust and inform the new stewards of their responsibilities and the attitudes we are all trying to foster towards the land. (TIES is aiming for a spring publication.)

If I were asked to articulate the strongest and most commonly held attitude within the TIES group, I think it would go something like this:

Land is both a resource and a living entity, with potentials that can be unrestorably destroyed by a thoughtless or selfish owner. The very concept of ownership encourages such misuse, and has limitations which ignore the common interest. It is time to find more flexible and broad-based approaches to land use, land management, and land protection. The combined initiative of concerned groups and individuals will make this change possible.

What a new system of land-use management would look like is a matter of evolution, but it seems clear that a system of group management of resources in which there is a common interest will play an increasing role as we become more aware of our responsibility to the land. Unless we desire a government-managed program to determine who will steward what resources and how then we must develop the tools and leadership required for private sector responsibility for the care of our resources.

The tools and leadership developed in the group land trust process can be a step in becoming capable as managers of even more complex, global, and life-threatening issues. Our primary hope in sharing our experience in this article is that other groups will find a number of reasons to be inspired and encouraged to consider a land trust project, whether it is a site they presently own, or a site which is asking for protection.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!