Land conservation is conservative, patriotic, and spiritual


AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this dinner speech to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association in Lancaster on April 8, 2005.


It’s always a pleasure to come to Pennsylvania, and I’m especially happy to be able to spend a couple of days with a bunch of ardent land conservationists. As I think you’ll realize by the time I’m done, there is very little that’s dearer to my heart than land conservation!

REP is the national grassroots organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection… and yes, we know what that sounds like. That old oxymoron joke was hanging out there, wasn’t it? But you all were just too polite to let those chuckles bubble up to the surface.

So, please understand… it’s okay to laugh at the silly-sounding notion of Republicans for Environmental Protection. But then, once you’ve laughed, think about it a bit and remember your history, and I think you’ll come to see, as our members do, that Republicans for Environmental Protection is really not an oxymoron at all. As our slogan says: Conservation is Conservative! There is absolutely nothing more fundamentally conservative than conservation.

I could go on for quite some time, reciting the history of the GOP in its greener days, but I have other things to talk about tonight.

Just let me ask you one question: Do people in Pennsylvania still remember John Saylor?

I surely do hope so! John Saylor was a die-hard conservative Republican from Johnstown who served in the US House of Representatives from 1949 until his death in 1973. Not many people know his name today, but in his time John Saylor was a giant. “Saint John” was what his fans called him. John Saylor is still, to this day, one of the best examples of a conservation-minded Republican that any one of us could ever hope to find.

John Saylor was a truly-conservative conservationist. He was the lead Republican sponsor of the Wilderness Act of 1964. He helped kill a proposal to build a dam on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. He fought his own Pennsylvania colleagues over building a dam on the Allegheny River. As my REP colleague Jim DiPeso said two weeks ago in a speech in Colorado: “John Saylor hated dams… and being from Johnstown, it’s not hard to see why.” Losing that fight over the Allegheny was what inspired him to introduce a bill that would eventually become the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.

I’ve never lived in Pennsylvania, but ever since I was a child I’ve driven through your lovely state. I can’t think of a better way to slide into the topic of land trusts than to tell you a quick personal story.

My best memories of Pennsylvania were formed over a three-year period in the late 1950s. My father was an Army officer stationed at the Pentagon, and we lived in Arlington, Virginia. While we were there, our extended family from all over the South made a point of coming to visit us. We would show them the sights of Washington and take them out into still-rural Virginia. And then, inevitably, we’d head up to Pennsylvania.

Our relatives always wanted to visit Philadelphia, to see the Liberty Bell, of course, and Independence Hall. But they were attracted to Gettysburg, too, not only for the battlefields and the cemetery, but also because they wanted to see the Eisenhower Farm. In those days, a casual tourist could just drive by on the little country road and maybe catch a glimpse of Ike out mowing the lawn or Mamie out hanging laundry on the line. Things like that were known to happen back then. I doubt there’s much chance nowadays of spotting George or Laura doing anything like that out in their yard in Crawford.

So, whenever some family group would show up and want a tour, we’d set off early in the morning on a big pre-Interstate loop: up from Arlington to Baltimore and on to Philadelphia, then west on rural roads through this part of the state until we reached Gettysburg, where we’d get out for a long walk around the battlefield before heading back to Virginia. We made that trip in all seasons, and probably at least a dozen times during the three years we lived in Arlington.

That late-1950s Pennsylvania is forever etched in my mind: the gentle, rolling countryside—filled with nothing more than farms and cattle and villages—that spread out everywhere from Philadelphia to Gettysburg. We always took our visitors out on those country roads, because people loved the landscape. It looked so bucolic and bountiful and beautiful.

After my father retired from the Army, we headed for Texas. Within a few years I graduated from high school and college, got married, and settled down with my husband to build our lives and careers in the northern suburbs of Chicago. As luck would have it, I didn’t get back to Pennsylvania for almost four decades.

Then, around 1997 or ‘98, when REP was still in its infancy, I got an invitation to attend an environmental conference in Carlisle. I flew from Chicago to Philadelphia, spent a couple hours exploring the historic city on my own for the first time, and then hopped into my rented car and headed west. Since I had the whole afternoon to get to Carlisle, I decided to leave the highway at the edge of Philadelphia and make my way on the back roads that I remembered so well from my childhood.

Well, you folks who live here know what I saw. Where the land was still in its natural state, the land was still beautiful. But so much of the rolling countryside I remembered had morphed into the same flat scene one sees everywhere in suburban America: highway interchanges, shopping malls, big boxes, office complexes, and housing developments marching across the hills. In a word, it was mostly Sprawl City.

But not everywhere! What really blew my mind as I got further and further away from Philadelphia were the signs that started cropping up on old stone fences and wooden barns along those back roads. By the time I got to Carlisle, I had counted dozens of them. Do you know what those signs said?

They said wonderful things like: “This land preserved by a conservation easement.”  Or: “This farm protected in perpetuity by the Such-and-Such Land Trust.” I saw those signs on every country road I drove that afternoon, and I was absolutely thrilled!

And do you know… as I drove along those back roads, through farmlands and villages that really didn’t look too different from what I remembered from the late 1950s, it felt so good to know that the people living there cared enough — and were sophisticated enough — to protect their lands and communities, now and forever, from what I call the creeping ugliness of suburban sprawl.

I realize as I stand here tonight that some of you may well have been responsible for that wonderful land conservation work I saw in effect that afternoon. If that’s the case, then… my hat is off to you! You and all your colleagues working in the land conservation business here in Pennsylvania should be proud of yourselves, proud of the lands you’ve helped to save, and proud of the land trusts that you are part of.


I know that you are attending this conference to gain specific, concrete information… the legal, ecological, organizational, and societal aspects of running a good land trust. Experts are leading the daytime sessions. I have no technical expertise whatsoever to add to what they are teaching you, so I’m not going to try to compete with them tonight.

Instead, for the rest of my time this evening, I’d like to touch on a few less concrete issues, and maybe leave you with some new ideas to think about.

I believe that the process of starting, operating and growing a successful private land trust exemplifies three very important human values. Being the “conservative conservationist” that I am, I tend to think in a “conservative conservationist” way. So please forgive me if I inject that bias into my talk. And even if you just consider yourself a conservationist — but not necessarily a “conservative” one — I’d like to think you might change your mind about that little detail by the time I’m done.

Everybody seems to be talking about values these days. And framing is a hot buzzword, too.

So I’m going to FRAME my ideas around three specific VALUES involved in the process of conserving land through private land trusts.

THE FIRST VALUE: Conserving land through private land trusts is a conservative activity. That redundancy may sound like blithering idiocy when you first hear it, but it’s really not. I’ll explain why in a moment.

THE SECOND VALUE: Conserving land through private land trusts is a patriotic activity. It’s patriotic to save land and natural resources in the United States of America.

THE THIRD VALUE: Conserving land through private land trusts is a spiritual activity. You all know the old saying: One’s closest to God’s heart in a garden. Well, I would amend that to say: One’s closest to God’s heart in a lovingly-protected nature preserve.

To sum up: Conserving land through private land trusts is CONSERVATIVE, PATRIOTIC, and SPIRITUAL.


And now, with your indulgence, I’ll explain why I picked those values to talk about tonight.

Before I get into why I say believe conserving land through private land trusts is CONSERVATIVE, I need to point out how the words “liberal” and “conservative” have gotten badly twisted around, to the point where they really don’t have much meaning anymore. Since when did it become “liberal” to conserve natural resources and “conservative” to squander them? Since when do “liberals” strive to protect productive farmland and “conservatives” lust to convert it into asphalt and concrete? That curious flip-flopping seems to me a linguistic perversion born in just the last couple of decades.

Despite the fact that the words “liberal” and “conservative” almost have no meaning for me any more, I am going to use them in this talk… but always, always with “quotation marks” around them.

Well, one of the positions that so-called “liberals” advocate is for governments to take the lead in protecting natural land. So-called “conservatives” like to argue that governments should not be in the land-owning business, that it’s not in the constitution, and therefore it should not be done. If you want to see a piece of land saved from development, those “conservatives” argue, BUY IT YOURSELF. That argument usually seems cynical, because those “conservatives” seem to know that most people who want to save land can’t afford to buy it all by themselves.

I happen to disagree with what those so-called “conservatives” say, because I do believe there is an important role for government at all levels to play in saving land. During my ten years as a Republican county commissioner in Lake County, Illinois, I was known as one of the most ardent land conservationists in the county. The “green voters” of both parties loved me. The pro-development GOP establishment disliked me and tried repeated to get rid of me. They never could do it, however, because even in GOP primaries, the voters kept re-electing this avowedly “green Republican” over my avowedly “brown Republican” challengers. My “green” allies and I pushed through three successful bond referenda for land acquisition, for a total of $170 million dollars… in just one county, in just one overwhelmingly Republican county. Those were Republican voters who voted three times to raise their own taxes so we, their county government leaders, could buy and protect high-quality natural lands. I like to think that those Republican voters who supported me, my allies and those three bond referenda were the real “conservatives” in Lake County.

We went through most that money before I retired (voluntarily, as I like to say) in 2002, and in the process of spending that $170,000,000, we acquired over 10,000 acres of phenomenal preserves that will be there forever—providing valuable ecological services and wholesome nature-oriented recreation for the residents of Lake County forever. Those preserves are truly my proudest achievement, and my best legacy, from that ten-year period of my life.

However, having said that— as a “green Republican” with a decade of mud-wrestling experience in local politics under my belt, I must confess that I think today’s “conservatives” may have it right in one sense. If you want land protection done right, do it yourselves… just as you folks are doing it: through private land trusts. Don’t depend on the government, at any level, to do it for you.
Here’s one thing I have learned over the years: government-owned lands are usually larger, and they may be spectacular, but they are not as safe or as well protected as lands owned by private land trusts.

As you know… politicians tend to come in three colors: green, brown and — as my colleague Jim DiPeso calls those in the middle — chartreuse. Some are “true green,” like Congressman John Saylor. Others are “true brown,” like that infamous Texan, Congressman Tom Delay. Most of the rest are chartreuse. They aren’t necessarily anti-environmental in their hearts, but they’re forced to deal with so many competing interests, and with so many different aspects of government, that they may not always make wise decisions about the public lands that have been placed in their care.

Also, elected officials tend to come and go. On those rare occasions when “green” politicians are in control, public lands will be protected for their ecological values and given proper stewardship. But times change and elections happen. Public lands that originally were acquired with resource conservation in mind can easily fall into the clutches of “brown” politicians who have no interest in conservation and don’t value natural land.

Let me give you three examples of bad land-use proposals for our public forest preserves that we fought off during my years in Lake County government.

  1. Someone came up with a plan to plop a Michael Jordan Golf Training Center, compete with bar and grill and big-screen TV, right down into the heart of one of our lovingly-restored prairie preserves. “It’s just an old field!” We managed to kill that one.
  2. There was a scheme to ram a four-lane highway straight through a large wetland that the county had bought for conservation and research purposes. “It’s just an old swamp!” We killed that one too.
  3. There was a push to run a regional bike trail through a high-quality riparian-woodland preserve that a wealthy family had donated to the county with the specific provision that it not be opened up to active recreation, but instead be used only for resource conservation and low-impact activities like bird watching and nature study. “Such an elitist place!” That one was hard to kill, but eventually we did.

My “green” allies and I successfully fought off all those proposals and more, but we couldn’t stop them all. The worst for me was when a high-quality, old-growth forest preserve was turned into a golf course. It ended up as a beautiful golf course, but many of us felt that the “highest and best use” of that particular old-growth forest would have been to keep it in its natural condition.

And of course, it’s not just local governments that do things like that. Look at what’s happening to public lands all across the country right now. Every conservationist on the face of the Earth knows about the risk of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the same thing is happening to other federal lands all across the west. In New Mexico, we are fighting Bush administration proposals to drill for oil in two large, wildlife-rich natural areas. One is Otero Mesa on the southern edge of the state, bordering Texas; the other is the Valle Vidal on the northern edge of the state, near Colorado. The case of the Valle Vidal is especially painful, since the beautiful half-million acre property was given to the federal government several decades back by an elderly widow, specifically because she wanted her family lands protected in perpetuity. And now the Bush administration is pushing to drill for oil there. The elderly widow would have been far better off to donate her land to The Nature Conservancy.

I’d like to tell you one other quick personal story…

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been an enthusiastic bird photographer. I’ve photographed birds everywhere from the Everglades to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Up to about four years ago, however, my all-time favorite bird-photography spot in the whole wide world was a very special lakeside thicket that I had discovered inside Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in the Ozark hills of southern Illinois. Well, to make a sad story very short… after driving the entire long length of Illinois specifically to get there, I discovered one summer morning that my favorite birdy thicket had been paved over to create a large parking space for trucks and trailers hauling recreational boats to the lake. After my temper tantrum subsided that morning, I went to the refuge headquarters for a little chat with the “super,” who informed me that the Fish & Wildlife Service’s mission was to accomodate “multiple uses,” including the fishing public. I had, of course, naively assumed that since it was called a “national wildlife refuge” it was operated for the primary purpose of providing a refuge for wildlife. Silly me.

My point in all this is that people with a passion for land conservation should heed the conservative argument: If you want to see a very special parcel of land saved and properly cared for, now and on into the distant future, don’t count on the government to do it for you. Raise the money yourselves and buy it and protect it in as many legal ways as you possibly can… just as all of you are in fact doing through your local land trusts.

And that’s why I say that conserving land through private land trusts is truly a CONSERVATIVE activity.


Now… why do I say that conserving land through private land trusts is a PATRIOTIC activity?

To answer that, I need only cite the old grand old man of American land conservation: President Theodore Roosevelt. TR once said something that we at REP have taken very much to heart. Teddy Roosevelt wrote:

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

That’s a very powerful statement!

How, one might ask, does land conservation ensure the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation?
Well, let’s take a look at just one ecosystem—biodiverse natural forests, which are a favorite target of local land trusts. I’m going to refer specifically to “natural forests” as opposed to single-age, single-species tree farms, which bear about as much resemblance to a natural forest as a force-fed foie gras duck bears to a Northern Shoveler.

  • Natural forests safeguard our watersheds, providing abundant clean water to American families and communities.
  • Natural forests absorb rainwater, mitigating flooding after storms and spring runoff.
  • Natural forests clean our air, reducing pollution and related health problems like asthma.
  • Natural forests mitigate extreme heat, so buildings near them need less power to be comfortable in summer.
  • Natural forests prevent erosion of soils, protecting America’s ability to feed her own population.
  • Natural forests maintain a reliable carbon sink to stave off global climate change.
  • Natural forests shelter a wealth of plants and animals that might one day provide a cure for diseases we don’t even know about today.

Natural forests provide innumerable “services,” many of which we couldn’t afford in any other way. What’s more, they provide those services reliably and for free. Of couse, we environmentalists would seek to protect forests for their own sake, even if they had no value whatsoever to humankind… but even a flinty-eyed economist would say they’re well worth saving just for their current and potential benefit to mankind.

Protecting our waterways and wetlands and estuaries and coastlines and farmlands yields the same mult-faceted benefits. I could spell them out at length, but my time is limited.  Suffice it to say… the most patriotic among us are the ones who advocate saving natural forests and other special places for future generations of Americans. They’re going to need those services in the future, just as we need them today.

So yes… I truly do believe that conserving land through private land trusts is a PATRIOTIC activity. Added up, all those parcels of land that your various trusts have acquired here in Pennsylvania are making a huge contribution to the survival of this nation. So please remember: private land conservation is patriotic. And you, my fellow land conservers, YOU are patriots!


Finally, let me explain why I believe that conserving land through private land trusts is a SPIRITUAL activity.

This is actually the easiest of the three to explain. I’m sure that many of you are motivated in your land-conservation work by a sense that you are helping to preserve God’s marvelous Creation. Well, you’re not alone in that belief. Increasingly, across the country, some of the most religiously “conservative” people are beginning to talk in terms of Creation Care. They argue that man should be a steward, not a despoiler, of this magnificent world that God created for our use. And what better way to exercise stewardship than to protect and care for land in the communities where we live.

I want to take a little detour at this point, getting away from land conservation for just a minute.

In the mid-1990s, about the same time that REP was getting started, another revolutionary movement called the Evangelical Environmental Network started to take root and grow.  For a decade, EEN has advocated that devout Christians should be stewards of the land, as opposed to rapers and abusers of the land. Well, now that concept of stewardship is beginning to catch on with other fundamentalist groups as well.  Recently, the immense National Association of Evangelicals came out with an amazing statement, proclaiming their belief that global warming is real, that it’s human-caused, and that mankind has a duty to do something about it…to protect God’s creation.

Folks, that is an astounding development. No matter what your personal level of spirituality or what faith you profess, you have to be glad to see groups like the National Association of Evangelicals — which has tremendous political clout — taking on an issue that has gotten so little traction with the Bush administration.

The fact that this Creation Care idea is catching on is immensely encouraging to me. However, I don’t want to be foolishly optimistic, so I’ll just note with some caution that the emergence of fundamentalist groups like the National Association of Evangelicals as allies of environmentalists and conservationists in our work to protect the Earth can only be a good thing, long term, for our country and our world. So, yes, conserving land through private land trusts is a SPIRITUAL activity.


I know that’s a wee bit off the topic of land trusts, but I think you should know — and be glad — that there are new allies emerging in the fight to protect our world. And as I have always said about REP… we will take our allies in this movement wherever we find them. We don’t have to agree on anything else, just so long as we agree on the importance of protecting our lands, our air and water, our people, and our threatened and endangered species from harm.


To wind up, I want to make a final generic statement: The work you are doing is incredibly important. Whether you’re part of a large, well-established land trust or a small one that’s just getting started, you’re part of a vital movement that’s growing across this country. It’s a reaction to sprawl and a desire to protect beloved landscapes that are literally disappearing before our eyes.

I’ll close with a quick three-frame recap:


You land conservers are spiritualists.

You’re patriots.

And no matter what your political party may be, you truly are conservatives.