Establishing accreditation for land trust organizations : seeking public trust in the conservation easement movement
Felmlee, William M.
Thesis (M.A.L.S.)--Georgetown University, 2009.; Includes bibliographical references.; Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format. Transparency and accountability are arguably priority institutional values for the American public, and questions over these values in the conservation easement movement led to a 2003 expose in The Washington Post. The resultant scrutiny by the U.S. Congress pushed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to initiate nationwide conservation easement audits and develop new tax procedures that greatly affected the movement.; The Land Trust Alliance (LTA), a membership organization with 1,700 U.S. land trusts, was immediately motivated to minimize further IRS involvement by planning the development of a land trust accreditation program. Concurrently, the LTA still lobbied Congress for permanent tax incentives on conservation easements--a goal that has consumed the movement for a decade, and irregardless of any congressional scrutiny.; The development of the accreditation program was left to the Land Trust Accreditation Commission (LTAC), a new and independent arm of the LTA. After 39 inaugural accredited land trusts were introduced in 2008, the LTA touted this endeavor as a new way to uphold their highest standards. The LTAC hailed the accreditation process as deserving of the public's trust.; Yet, throughout 2009 there was no public attention on accreditation. The LTA remained focused on the permanence of tax incentives through a strong lobbying effort. The IRS implemented sweeping tax reporting procedures for nonprofit organizations--including most land trusts, to ensure more organizational transparency and accountability to the IRS. At the same time, the LTAC was left to accredit more land trusts without any public involvement or public disclosure processes.; Consequently, the 2003 initiatives of Congress, the IRS, and the LTA would lead to unintended values conflicts by 2009. Despite the LTA's efforts to promote the public's trust, the IRS instead pushed to determine the public's benefit of conservation easements and tax exempt land trusts--thereby meeting their congressionally mandated responsibility for ensuring regulatory compliance. Concurrently, the LTA seemingly allowed the LTAC to prioritize confidentiality over transparency, and self-regulation over verified accountability.; As the conservation easement movement looks beyond 2010, the true intent of accreditation appears undefined in terms of earning the public's trust when federal regulatory compliance has assumed a dominant role in ensuring transparency and accountability. The prioritizations of confidentiality within the movement and the LTAC's self-regulation of land trusts diminishes the values issue of public trust, and any notion that the accreditation process upholds the public's trust appears rhetorical in nature.
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