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National Trust Tries to Stay Behind the Times

Britain's century-old preservation group must balance maintaining the past and sustaining a future

How can a place of natural beauty be preserved without turning it -- and the people who live and work in it -- into some kind of museum?

This is one of the questions that exercises John Young. Mr. Young was appointed rural affairs adviser to Britain's National Trust 2-1/2 years ago.

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The Trust is a century old this year. So Young is right when he describes himself as ''a new boy'' in this vast charitable organization designed to ''preserve places of historic interest or natural beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation.''

Much of the British countryside has, to a surprising degree, been given its character by the people who have worked it. But if farming practices change because of technological or economic factors, or fishing falls on bad times because of depletion of fish stocks, or a moorland area is overwhelmed by tourism, weekend home-owners, or new road-building, how should a conservation body like the Trust react? Should it fight, or move with the times?

The Trust has an unusual degree of responsibility toward the countryside. In Britain, unlike the United States and much of Europe, the state has little direct responsibility for the conservation of either historic buildings or landscape. So the Trust, since its founding by a group of 19th-century idealists, has increasingly been perceived as the only alternative for house- or land-owners who are desperate to have their properties preserved but can't afford their upkeep.

Only Parliament can overrule it

The Trust's greatest strength is its power to declare the land it acquires ''inalienable.'' Only a special parliamentary procedure can overrule this. Trust land cannot be sold, mortgaged, or purchased against the organization's wishes.

To date, the Trust (a body completely independent from the government), apart from owning 1,000 ancient monuments, more than 200 historic homes, 160 gardens, and 25 industrial monuments (including old mills and mines) throughout England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, also possesses 590,000 acres of countryside and nearly 550 miles of coastline. (Scotland has its own trust.)

The thousands of acres the Trust owns naturally include farms, rural communities, and even part or most of a number of villages. All of these come under the Trust's somewhat paternalistic care.

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Richard Matthews, an inshore fisherman who lives in a Trust cottage (born in it, in fact, half a century ago) in the tiny Cornish cove of Penberth, says he ''couldn't wish for better'' landlords.

He admits that the Trust is ''very particular'' about his house. ''If they agreed to your building a shed,'' for example, ''it would have to be faced in Cornish granite.'' Young admits that sometimes the Trust might be ''too fussy -- a little bit purist.'' But Matthews approves. ''It do look better, that's the thing,'' he says. Penberth ''could be a lot different'' but for the Trust. ''They preserve the old traditions -- the things you don't want to die out,'' he says.

And that includes the fishing. The Trust recently obtained grants to buy a new freezer and cellars for the Penberth fishermen. But is this the Trust exercising what Young calls ''an indirect social policy'' outside its responsibility? He knows there is a fine line between the Trust's preserving ways of life to maintain a landscape and the danger of being accused of ''social engineering.''

Helping rural industries

Although Matthews says the rent for his cottage is high relative to his income, Young says the Trust deducts ''an amenity factor'' from the rent level set by the local government rent officer. ''But we would do this only for people working in the village'' as opposed to tourists or weekenders, for example. The aim is to both preserve and keep the place alive: It is what Young calls ''a balancing act.'' In this way, the Trust's role might include helping a rural industry that otherwise would go under.

Some threats to the Trust's rural areas are less subtle, such as the invasion of city dwellers who want to own weekend homes.

Tourists are paradoxically part of the Trust's own business. A substantial portion of its income comes from thousands of Trust members and others who eagerly visit its properties and houses. And yet the fragility of the Trust properties can be in considerable danger from these very supporters, especially when they come in cars.

Author Paula Weideger suggests the Trust could be less ''timid'' and campaign more vigorously against the increasing number of roads the government allows to snake across the countryside. This point is made by Ms. Weideger in a critical book about the Trust published to coincide with its centenary year: ''Gilding the Acorn: Behind the Facade of the National Trust.'' She writes: ''If only the National Trust, created as a solution to the problems mass transport was causing, would raise its head above the parapet again, think what leadership it might provide.'' But she says this gigantic charity has too much ''cowardice'' to stand up to government policies.

It may be, however, that the Trust is more effective than such criticism suggests by the kind of quiet balancing acts Young mentions. In Penberth, for instance, cars are not encouraged. ''We do not have big car parks and so forth there,'' Young says. A farming dale in North Yorkshire is protected against tourists even more. ''We don't even publish its name in the [National Trust] Handbook,'' he says. ''But it is the exception that proves the rule.''

To balance things, he points out that in ''traditional tourist areas,'' such as the Lake District, tourists were part of life well before the Trust arrived. ''Farmers have always 'farmed' tourists'' there, he argues, pointing out that most farmers run bed-and-breakfasts on the side, which helps supplement their income.

The Trust policy preserving the Lake District (the Trust owns a quarter of the land here) allows farmers who maintain it to make some kind of living. If this includes tourism, so be it, Young says. Take the small hill farms there: ''If you were running it purely from a business point of view,'' he says, ''you would clearly amalgamate virtually every farm that becomes vacant.'' One could rent the house to an outsider and the land to a neighboring farmer, he says. In short, ''You would double your income, and life would be much simpler,'' Young says. ''But we try to resist that normal commercial pressure.''

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