As the newly installed chairman of the Triangle Land Conservancy’s board of directors, I have been pondering why people give their time and money to land trusts. My conclusion: They recognize that private, nonprofit land trusts like TLC are uniquely positioned to convert the powerful concept called a land ethic into on-the-ground reality.
Many 20th century writers have spoken about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. The organizing principle of these works is usually that of community and of man’s ethical relationship to community.
Advantages of communities emerged early in the evolution of mankind. Groupings of individuals allowed for protection from animals and predatory fellow humans. They also facilitated gathering of food and eventually permitted commerce. As communities evolved, so did concepts of right and wrong and these, in turn, led to the development of ethical standards needed to differentiate social from anti-social behavior.
Aldo Leopold, a 1909 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, succinctly defined the concept of community in his landmark book “A Sand County Almanac”: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him to co-operate.”
Leopold then introduced a concept that provided the basis for much of the environmental movement of the 1960s and beyond. In addition to the ethical codes that have guided human behavior for centuries, he talked about the importance of a land ethic. Here is the essence of his concept: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.”
The evolution of a land ethic has taken more time than has the development of human ethics, and that should not be surprising. Leopold recognized that infusing a land ethic into society is not easy because the concept requires that humans no longer view themselves as conquerors of the land community but as members of it.
This, in turn, implies that humans have respect for the other members of their community– the soil, water, air, plants and animals as well as their fellow man. In my view, it has been this belief – this embracing of the concept of a land ethic – that implicitly drives Triangle Land Conservancy and other land trusts.
TLC’s mission is to “protect important open space – stream corridors, forests, wildlife habitat, farmland and natural areas.” Programs that support this mission are vital because these members of our community do not have a voice to speak for themselves. They need an advocate, and TLC is their advocate.
An analogy to TLC can be found in juvenile court. Guardian ad litem programs were established over 40 years ago when judges realized that something was missing in their courtrooms. In matters of abuse or neglect, they heard from county agencies, parents and lawyers. But missing was the voice of the child. Consequently, a system of child advocacy was developed so that these small but precious voices could be heard through someone – the guardian ad litem – whose sole job is to speak up about their needs and wishes.
So it is with undeveloped lands in the six-county Triangle area. Triangle Land Conservancy speaks for those land-related members of the community who do not otherwise have a voice. It espouses a land ethic.
But TLC has gone one step further – a step that takes it beyond the practice of protecting land from something to protecting it for something. It has identified four public benefits that the land provides here in the Triangle and that are not readily measurable in economic terms. These benefits are safeguarding clean water, supporting local farms and food, connecting people and nature, and providing wildlife habitat.
The powerful intellectual step TLC has taken is this: By linking its transactions to the four public benefits, it has actually linked the land community with the human community. Through the lands it protects, TLC demonstrates that it is possible for both communities to be integrated in relative harmony. In reality, these are not two separate realms but one complex, interrelated and interdependent community known as "the Triangle".
This is a tremendously powerful context for TLC’s work, and I think it is a major reason why so many of us are dedicated to its mission.
Larry W. Tombaugh, dean emeritus at N.C. State University’s College of Natural Resources, is chairman of Triangle Land Conservancy’s Board of Directors.