TNC's President and CEO Mark Tercek. Photo © Erika Nortemann/TNC.

A Revolutionary Movement in Conservation

Mark Tercek is president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

I was pleased to be one of the two keynote speakers this week at the opening day of the Land Trust Alliance’s annual rally. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar also spoke at the rally, giving the keynote speech on the closing day of the event.

It was great to see so many people gathered together, dedicated to protecting our nation’s lands and waters.

Here is a summary of the messages I delivered.

First, I congratulated the land trust movement for revolutionizing conservation in America over the past 30 years. Private owners hold 70 percent of the land in the United States — lands that contain forests, rivers, coastal areas and wildlife habitat. Land trusts have played a pivotal role in bringing private citizens together with public agencies, businesses and conservation groups to keep those lands strong and productive.

I challenged the land trust movement to work even harder and take the lead in confronting the many conservation challenges we are facing today. Growing global populations and climate change are putting unprecedented stress on our natural systems. The economic crisis and increasingly divisive political atmosphere are making it difficult to find practical conservation solutions. And there is a widening divide between people and nature – particularly among youth, people of color and working class families – that is leading many to forget just how much we all rely on healthy natural systems.

But I also noted signs of hope.  Across the country, voters are backing policy initiatives that invest in conservation. In Iowa, voters are poised next month to pass the biggest conservation ballot initiative in the country, which will create a permanent and dedicated fund that will provide $150 million in new conservation spending each year – in particular, investments in wetlands restoration to control flooding, improve water quality and protect against soil erosion.

During the last election cycle, Minnesotans voted to increase their sales tax to generate $300 million a year to improve the state’s water quality, to restore and protect wildlife habitat and to support the state’s parks and trails.

I also described how the Obama Administration this year launched the America’s Great Outdoors, initiative that – for the first time ever — sent senior government officials across the country to hear directly from the American people about the direction of conservation in the 21st century. This unprecedented government effort and the enthusiasm shown by the American public is opening the door for a new era of conservation.

To confront the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities, I encouraged land trust to do the following:

  • Tell the Obama administration what needs to happen for conservation to succeed as we move forward into the 21st century;
    Work across political, social and geographic boundaries to conserve whole landscapes and watersheds, as opposed to disconnected and smaller protected areas;
  • Demonstrate how sustainable farming and forestry on lands with easements can also protect public values like water supplies, open space and wildlife habitat;
  • Respond to the challenge of climate change by supporting national, regional and state efforts to reduce carbon emissions while also helping communities, farmlands, forestlands and natural systems adapt to the climate impacts we are seeing today. I also called on the crowd to actively oppose California’s Proposition 23, a ballot initiative fueled by out-of-state special interests that seeks to overturn the state’s pioneering limits on carbon emissions. Climate change is too big a threat for the conservation movement to sit on the sidelines.
  • Be far more proactive in broadening our conservation constituency by reaching out to youth, urban communities and people of color. We must ensure that today’s urban communities and young people understand the critical role nature plays in keeping our economy and communities strong.
  • Demand our elected officials put politics aside and get back to America’s hundred-year tradition of bi-partisan support for conservation.

I concluded by noting how privileged I feel to lead The Nature Conservancy and be engaged in full-time conservation.  I reminded the crowd that they too should feel privileged to be working to protect our nation’s natural heritage. And I emphasized three powerful aspects of land trusts:

  1. As private and voluntary organizations, land trusts can transcend elections, public appointments and policy chaos; they can buffer the conservation movement from wild swings in political opinion.
  2. Land trusts are flexible vehicles and can transcend boundaries and maps, so they can achieve success across entire landscapes and watersheds.
  3. And land trusts are handed down from one generation to the next so they can provide the consistency of purpose to ensure that conservation proceeds on the right course over the period ahead.

Working in conservation is a great privilege. We benefit from the fellowship of walking the conservation trail together, and we achieve a kind of quiet immortality so rare in this complex world — because in saving our lands and waters each of us becomes an indelible part of the places we know and love across this beautiful country.

You can see my my full speech by clicking here, and learn more about the Land Trust Alliance’s work with private landowners to conserve the nation’s natural heritage by visiting their website at

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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