Conservation is a Con

Dear Friends of SLEAT:

As you know, the Georgia Coast, just a hundred miles, if you don’t count all the islands’ shores, is being roiled by a proposal to subdivide Cumberland Island, whose designation as a National Seashore persuaded almost everyone that it was to be preserved as one of the few wild places on the Atlantic Coast. The Jekyll Island Authority, the stewards of a state park, are angling to manicure what they still refer to as “pristine” lands and deploy bulldozers to haul off “nuisance sands.” And, on Saint Simons Island, under the guise of “conservation easements,” whose “values” are sanctified by the IRS, a number of large tracts of land (Cannon’s Point, Sinclair Plantation, Musgrove Plantation) are being temporarily taken off the real estate market to restrict public access and protect the exclusive interests of a few estates (the Jones Family, Davis Love and Sam Nunn) with contributions from the public purse via tax breaks and outright grants.

It used to be readily admitted that no governmental body could be bound by legislative fiat and that any subsequent body was free to change the laws. Which likely accounts, to cite a current local example, for the provision in the gifting of Twitty Park to Glynn County that, should the County change its mind about keeping the land as a public park, the land being deeded would revert to the benefactor’s heirs.

No such provision exists in the deed with which the Saint Simons Land Trust acquired the land commonly referred to as the Sea Island stables at the intersection of the Sea Island Road and Frederica. However, that deed tells us that a land trust is no more reliable when it comes to a permanent reservation of land to preclude destructive development than elected public officials. In the stables deed, the potential of a future disposition or caching out of the “conservation value” is addressed by the provision that, should the SSLT, a private non-profit, decide to sell that parcel, the owner of the adjacent commercial development would have a right of first refusal. Of course, the solicitations for contributions from the public didn’t announce that this was a “pay me now, so I can profit later” scheme.

Bureaucratese is not a new invention. We learned the lesson well in the 1980’s when “urban renewal” actually meant “remove the people” out to the suburbs and “development plan” meant “destroy and hope something better takes its place.” That “resource” is actually short for “revenue source” has taken me somewhat by surprise. But it does make clear that “conserving our resources” actually means selling them off at a later time. And, in the mean time, the U.S. Treasury rewards the deferred dollar income by giving tax breaks for the “conservation values.” Moreover, the size of those tax breaks depends on how many dollars are contributed now, including subsidies from the public purse.

Which is why this announcement from the Saint Simons Land Trust is raising some ire, including the question “how many times do we have to pay for the same parcel of land just to have it destroyed later on?”

Lee wins Dorothy Gilbert Award

Board member Jason Lee was honored this month with the Dorothy Gilbert Award, the Land Trust’s highest distinction. The award is named for the late conservationist and philanthropist Dorothy Gilbert, who made a gift of a 40-acre marsh-front property to the Land Trust in 2006, now known as the John Gilbert Nature Trail on Frederica Road. The award recognizes outstanding commitment, service and leadership to the Land Trust.

As a program manager at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, Lee leads efforts to protect threatened and endangered plants and animals that depend on Georgia habitats. As a member of the Cannon’s Point Conservation Task Force, he brought that expertise to his recommendations regarding research, surveys, and overall management of the preserve, as well as to development of the preserve’s forest restoration plan. As a member of the Land Trust board, Lee is now providing valuable insights into conservation of the Musgrove property.

“Jason is the epitome of a good steward of our region’s resources,” said David Pope, executive director of the Land Trust. “He worked tirelessly to make the Musgrove purchase happen, bringing not only his expertise as an ecological expert and land manager, but also securing $3 million in federal funds to assist in the purchase. It is fair to say that it would not have happened without Jason. We could not have a more deserving recipient of the Dorothy Gilbert award.”

Don’t know why they didn’t mention that Mr. Jason Lee was also central to the transfer of the Altama Plantation lands to the State of Georgia from the Texas land speculators, who acquired them after the Sea Island Company went belly up in 2010. Also unknown is whether that public/private partnership provides the promised longevity. The DNR can always decide later on a swap.

There used to be widespread concern about interlocking directorates in the corporate sector and there also used to be concern about the effect of nepotism on the delivery of public services. Perhaps the term “conflict of interests” has somehow disguised what those concerns were about — i.e. that, as the Bible tells us, it is not possible to serve two masters, especially when one of those is oneself. Now, perhaps because conflicts of interest are easiest to trace when there is money involved, participants in a multitude of quasi-public and private eleemosynary institutions seem to be exempt from even the perception of conflict, if they are not, at present, getting paid, or not very much. As a result, the not-for-profit sector looks quite incestuous but, because interest is to be defined in monetary terms, there is no reason to be concerned.

(The absolute immunity from prosecution enjoyed by prosecutors, of course, tells us that personal ambition and the lust for power are not to be considered “interests” at all).

Money is easy to trace, but the tracks recorded by the IRS are confidential. For that matter, so are the dollar values of what’s being “conserved,” since what we’ve paid out for the “conservation easements” is not recorded in the public records of the Superior Courts.

Where does that leave the public, despite the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act? In the dark. Moreover, what we didn’t know when only the elites had time to research information, is increasingly inaccessible because records pertaining to our public assets aren’t being kept. And that’s even more disconcerting.

So, what’s to be done? Attention must be paid. Eternal vigilance is required. Verify the trust.