Land Conservation Trends
The Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC) is an Ohio-based organization with a particular focus on preserving natural habitats and farmland as well as reclaiming abandoned properties. We have identified four current trends in land conservation that are particularly pertinent to the WRLC's efforts: A trend of funding shifting from public sources to private donations, an emphasis on sustainable food production, conservation through social durability, and efforts to intelligently link conservation areas to the benefit of their ecologies.
Below you will find a deep dive of our findings.
SOME NOTES ON METHODOLOGY
Attempting to identify a "trend" in a given sector is often a matter of a judgment call. In the case of the four trends that we have identified below, we based our decisions on two key criteria: First, notoriety. That is, we looked for examples which appeared in multiple articles within the past two years and which are not extremely localized. The second is applicability. Since the Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC, henceforth) is the potential client, we focused on finding trends that would be applicable to them.
While we followed the criterion of using only sources published in the past two years, we found that many of these sources surfaced data which had been compiled from 2015 and before. Nevertheless, these articles still represent the most current data available.
THE WESTERN RESERVE LAND CONSERVANCY
The WRLC is an Ohio-based organization, formed in 2006, which is dedicated to providing "the people of this region with essential natural assets through land conservation and restoration." To that end, it works with "landowners, communities, government agencies, park systems and other nonprofit organizations to permanently protect vibrant natural areas and working farmland," using conservation easements (explained below) as its primary tool. In addition to conserving natural areas and farmland, and creating public parks, the WRLC also helps in securing and repurposing vacant and abandoned properties in both suburban and urban areas.
PRIVATE INVESTMENT IN CONSERVATION
A report released in 2016, which was based on survey responses from 128 investors, shows that private investment into conservation efforts is growing: "Between 2009 and 2013, investors committed an average $0.8 billion of capital per year. In 2014 and 2015, this average doubled, with investors committing an average of $1.6 billion each year." The desire of many individuals to invest in companies that are environmentally and socially responsible, which has led to, for example, the creation of ESG ratings for mutual funds, encourages investment in conservation efforts. This is critical because public funding is declining in many states. In New England, for example, public funding for land conservation dropped 50% between 2008 and 2014, according to a 2017 study by Harvard University.
Private investment can be greatly affected by government policy. A 2016 paper demonstrates that counties in states that offer tax breaks for conservation efforts double the number of undeveloped acres that are put under protection after the tax incentives are in place. Ohio is among the states which offers tax breaks in return for both donating land to a qualified land protection organization and for conservation easement. An easement basically leaves the land in the owner's possession, but surrenders certain rights pertaining to future development. "The value of the easement donation" for tax purposes, "as determined by a qualified appraiser, equals the difference between the fair market value of the property before and after the easement takes effect."
SUSTAINABLE FOOD AND FIBER PRODUCTION
WRLC is heavily involved in efforts to preserve Ohio's farmland, having "completed the two largest farmland preservation projects ever in Ohio." This is one area in which it is easier to cultivate private donors. In fact, 80% of private capital invested in conservation efforts (see above) "was applied to sustainable food and fiber production. This included sustainable forestry, agriculture and fisheries," as opposed to habitat conservation and water quality.
The farmers themselves increasingly recognize the importance of healthy soil, which is vital to healthy crops. To quote Dirt to Dinner, "Healthy crops lead to more resilient crops that, in turn, help farmers in many other facets of sustainability, such as decreased water usage since the soil holds and absorbs more water, thus preventing running off; less fertilizer usage since healthy soils hold more essential nutrients and reduce nutrient runoff; and less pesticide usage because crops are more resilient and better equipped to fight off pests with their innate defenses."
However, there is another trend which is more troubling: "Tenants and part-owners are farming an increasing number of acres in the United States, while full-owners are farming fewer acres." This is problematic because renters are less likely to adopt conservation practices than land-owners. WRLC could play an important role in educating tenant farmers about the potential damage from over-farming the land, for example.
CONSERVATION THROUGH SOCIAL DURABILITY
Conservation efforts are an uphill battle unless the local community is onboard. A recent article from the Land Trust Alliance proposes that the ultimate solution is to make land conservation "socially durable," that is, framing conservation efforts in such a way that "people from all walks of life" are "connected to and directly benefit from land conservation programs and projects." The article gives the example of the Damariscotta River Association, which purchased a plot of land and made it available to everyone in their town, even building an ice skating rink on their property for kids to enjoy. This tied the community to their efforts instead of taking an adversarial approach.
In another example, New England loses 65 acres of forest a day to development. A Harvard University study advises conserving 30 million acres of New England forest (70% of the region's total land area) with 90% of the forest being managed for "wood products and other benefits," and the remaining 10% as protected wildlands. By permitting limited harvesting of the vast majority of the region's forests, Harvard proposes to align conserving those forests with people's immediate economic interests instead of in opposition to them. WRLC is already on the forefront of this type of "social durability," having "created more than 135 public parks and preserves."
LINKING CONSERVATION AREAS
Presently, the United States' many protected areas exist without connection to each other, they are "more an assemblage of isolated areas than a network of protection," despite the fact that "large, intact landscapes are needed for a system of protected areas to function ecologically." Brett Dickson of Conservation Science Partners has been working out models and maps to determine the best way to link conservation areas together. They note that unprotected lands supervised by the Bureau of Land Management often provide the best "connective tissue" between protected areas, lands that have low natural resistance against the movement of life forms and advise identifying and protecting those connecting corridors. WRLC's efforts in preserving Ohio's undeveloped acreage could well benefit by using these new models to strategically link protected areas to the benefit of Ohio's wildlife.
The WRLC is in an excellent position to take advantage of the current trends of funding shifting to private donors, the emphasis on sustainable food production, and conservation through social durability. It would further benefit from new modeling efforts to intelligently link conservation areas to the benefit of their ecologies.