The Trust for Public Land got some prime, earned media exposure today on American Public Media's Marketplace: Morning Report. Anytime you get that kind of attention it can work to your advantage, even if the facts are not always correct or presented the way you would have preferred. There were two parts of this generally favorable story that raised this insider's eyebrows.
I'm pretty sure TPL has saved a great deal more than "a thousand acres all over the country since last Fall." Heck, we've got land trusts in Connecticut that did that much in 2007, in a year when many landowners moved to close before December 31st to take advantage of extremely generous charitable deductions for gifts and discounted sales of conservation easements.
I also suspect TPL's President Will Rogers would have preferred that the reporter not characterize his and other conservation non-profits as "tend(ing) to have a lot of cash on hand. So they're able to buy land outright or secure better financing than private developers who rely on credit." TPL definitely does not have a lot of fungible cash on hand, and what capital funds it does secure are highly leveraged and extremely dependant on public sources of conservation finance. As for operational funds, those are scarce as hens teeth in this economic climate. Folks are getting laid off, not rolling in slush.
The Marketplace piece was interested in showing that when real estate values go South, conservation deals start to look more competitive than when land protection organizations are going head-to-head with developers. This so-called "green lining" to the real estate storm clouds is certainly a factor, but even when land gets more affordable, financing is still a significant challenge for conservation groups. Conservation dollars are among the first to get red-lined from government budgets in tough fiscal times, and when private donors are feeling decidedly less flush in their investments they tend to cut back on their philanthropy. They are also getting hit up by every non-profit they have ever supported as these groups struggle to maintain the capital they need to operate, let alone buy interests in conservation land.
Now is a very good time to invest in potential conservation real estate if you have the financing and can afford to buy and hold. There are some very large conservation organizations with access to revolving funds, but even these tend to be committed to existing projects and need to be replenished. The real opportunities in my part of the world are for significant conservation coupled with thoughtful development. In fact, some developers are finding that with today's financing constraints, having fewer houses to sell and some conservation dollars in the deal makes better sense than trying for full subdivision and build out potential. Such subdivisions also may stand a better chance with local land use commissions.
Even if it wasn't a perfect piece of reporting, the Trust For Public Land story helps with another kind of development. The kind that happens with donors.