A national conservation group announced yesterday that it is launching a $3 million program to improve ethics and governance at the nation's 1,500 land trusts.
The Land Trust Alliance, the nation's leading association of conservation organizations, is bankrolling the effort largely through a $1 million challenge grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The grant will help the alliance train and accredit conservation groups, part of a broad effort to improve professionalism and weed out rogue nonprofits.
"We cannot allow a few bad apples to stop thousands of private land owners, working farmers and ranchers, and local communities from protecting America's natural areas and landscapes," Rand Wentworth, president of the Washington-based alliance, said in a statement. "Accreditation can meet two important goals -- to build strong and enduring land trusts and to create a seal of approval that publicly recognizes their good work."
The move comes as some conservation organizations are under attack, especially for practices related to conservation easements and historic facade easements. A congressional committee has recommended doing away entirely with some tax breaks associated with the donation of such easements -- development restrictions placed on property deeds in an effort to preserve open space and protect antique streetscapes.
In February, the Internal Revenue Service included excessive tax deductions related to facade easements -- easements that protect the outward appearance of historic buildings -- on the IRS's annual "Dirty Dozen" list of scams for taxpayers to avoid.
On April 5, IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson told a Senate committee that tax examiners were investigating more than a dozen easement promoters and an unidentified number of charities, whose executives the IRS believes unduly profited by accepting easements. Independently, the IRS is conducting an extensive audit of the Nature Conservancy, perhaps the largest easement-holding organization in the nation.
"We are currently examining 48 easement donors and also are reviewing deductions taken for nearly 400 open space easements, to be followed with a review of over 700 facade easements," Everson told the Senate Finance Committee. "We will use all civil and criminal tools at our disposal to combat abuses."
Next month, the Finance Committee is expected to hold a hearing focusing on activities at the Nature Conservancy and other land trusts.
"We've seen some serious problems in land donations for conservation," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, (R-Iowa), chairman of the Finance Committee, said in a statement. "Self-governance has to be part of the solution, and I applaud this important step."
Even so, Grassley said, legislative reform is needed, as well. "Current laws are too loose to prevent abuse, and it's time to tighten those laws," he said.