Ted O. Harrison

The American environmental movement is grounded in sacred values: forbearance, awe and humility. It is a movement inspired by a profound love of place and the conviction that we are responsible for the future, as well as the present.

Notwithstanding the generosity of its ethics and the passion of its poetry, contemporary American environmentalism has struggled with the place of people in nature. By its roots in transcendentalism, environmentalism has segregated the social from the ecological realm—advancing a cultural preference toward nature as an Eden-like realm separate and apart from human society.

Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s appeal to nurture a land ethic of wisdom, respect and wonder for the planet, Commonweal Conservancy was founded in 2003 to forge deep and sustaining relationships between people and nature. The organization seeks to cultivate a culture of stewardship and a spirit of belonging among people and the land they call home. Toward this end, it has been pursuing a 13,500-acre conservation-based community development initiative in northern New Mexico called the Galisteo Basin Preserve.

Growing Challenges & Humbling Epiphanies

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the leaders of the American environmental movement enjoyed extraordinary success in countless David vs. Goliath legal and regulatory battles. A class of conservation dealmakers, policy makers and philanthropists facilitated millions of acres of protective land purchases. Despite their courageous and spectacular accomplishments, the environmental warrior class cannot be relied upon as the sole and sustaining protector of Eden’s gate.

In the 1990s, Ecotrust founder Spencer Beebe challenged the logic and efficacy of a “purchase the planet” approach to conservation. In a statement that many of his colleagues viewed as heretical, Beebe proclaimed, “[t]he old environmental movement is over. We need to move to a new era where we find synergy and sympathy between the built and the natural environments. We need to move from a strategy of defending bits and pieces of nature to recognizing the links between a healthy community and a healthy environment.”

Since then, a growing chorus of social justice activists, conservation practitioners, and policy makers has begun to call for an increasingly subtle and mutually reinforcing practice of conservation-based community development and community-based conservation.

Bringing Theory to Practice—A New Model of Land Stewardship

At the Galisteo Basin Preserve, Commonweal Conservancy is weaving a complex and colorful tapestry of environmental and social welfare ambitions. As proposed, more than ninety-six percent of the Preserve will be protected open space, with the majority made publicly accessible via fifty miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. In combination with adjoining public and private land holdings, the Preserve is planned as the centerpiece of a 23,000-acre wildlife habitat, cultural resource, open space, scenic, and recreational bio-cultural reserve in central Santa Fe County.

To help underwrite the Preserve’s conservation, restoration, and stewardship goals, a 965-home mixed-use, mixed-income community is planned within a beautifully framed 300-acre basin. The village, known as Trenza, celebrates the traditional values and planning principles that distinguish many traditional northern New Mexico towns and villages. Tightly clustered and deeply respectful of the region’s land and water, Trenza is designed as a resource-efficient community that will include a wide range of residential, commercial, and civic land uses.

Trenza’s mixed-use plan is anchored by a general store, a café, artists’ studios, a charter high school, a chapel, a post office, a business incubator, a fire station and other recreational and cultural facilities. A broad mix of housing types and home sizes is planned to shelter a community of diverse needs, traditions, and financial capabilities. Design standards are being drafted to encourage exciting architecture and an inviting town form. Green-building construction guidelines will ensure that structures are safe, healthy, and beautiful places for living, working, and learning.

A multi-dimensional funding strategy

Since its founding, Commonweal has pursued a carefully executed program of private land sales to conservation buyers. The sale of conservation homesteads and neighborhood home sites has helped the organization underwrite a portion of the Preserve’s land acquisition cost, as well as the planning and design of Trenza’s initial development phase.

While many advocacy organizations discount the intentions and effectiveness of public land-management agencies, Commonweal has actively engaged public-sector partners in its work. The Santa Fe County Open Lands and Trails Program, for example, has been an important source of funding and a resource for planning for the Preserve’s internationally acclaimed cultural resources. As of this writing, this county program has committed more than $5.5 million to land acquisitions within the Preserve and tens of thousands of dollars toward cultural resource surveys and planning.

On the state level, Commonweal has engaged the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) as a partner in a series of transferable conservation-easement tax credits and conservation easement purchases. Since 2008, EMNRD has authorized $750,000 in conservation easement tax credits to ensure the Preserve’s permanent protection. In August 2010, EMNRD awarded a $350,000 grant from the new Natural Heritage Conservation Program to protect a 270-acre riparian area, known as Galisteo Springs.

Over the next three years, $5.0-6.0 million in public and philanthropic investments will be actively solicited from a wide range of sources to offset Commonweal’s current and proposed conservation land purchases.

Change Your Mind, Change the World

My colleagues and I draw strength from Margaret Mead’s conviction: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Step by step, we make our way with these words firmly in mind. Even with the challenges of a sustained economic recession, the path has seemed to rise to meet our footsteps.

While matters of public welfare and improved environmental health may not compete with the financial drivers that motivate a majority of the real estate development industry, my colleagues and I believe that they are values of increasing importance to people longing for meaning and purpose in their lives. To the degree that the forces of “creative destruction” that flow from the current economic downturn bring more light and priority to values of meaning, beauty, and relationship—and if those values inspire development proponents and environmental activists to think and act differently in their practice—then our path will have been well traveled.

For more info about the Galisteo Basin Preserve, visit the project website at www.galisteobasinpreserve.com. For more about Commonweal Conservancy, visit www.commonwealconservancy.org or call 505.982.001, ext 102.

Ted Harrison is president and founder of Commonweal Conservancy, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit conservation-based community development organization. Previously he was the Southwest Regional Director and a Sr. Vice President at the Trust for Public Land.