Conservation easements can protect thousands of acres of valuable and vulnerable lands from development. However, why stop there?
Managing to produce goods, earn credits, or attract investment can mean more land protection in more situations.
In this article, we review tools that have helped produce strong conservation outcomes and invite readers to test them in new settings.
In the United States, conservation easement and acquisition models are a gold standard for protecting nature on private land. Conservation easements are legally binding agreements that permanently restrict land use for conservation, historic preservation, agricultural production, or forest management. Their key benefit is that while they limit the use of a parcel of land, they still allow land to be kept under private ownership and for landowners to retain the rights to hold, sell, or work on their land.
Other well-established land conservation strategies include the purchase, acquisition, trade, and gift of land. However, conservation easements have long been the primary tool for land and resource conservation because of the level of protection and flexibility they provide. As such, they are extremely effective and widely employed, with over 27 million acres in the United States protected by such legal instruments1. However, conservation easements and acquisitions may not always match owners’ or managers’ needs, challenges or desires.
Furthermore, conservation does not end at the point of protection. Accomplishing land protection often opens the door to further conservation needs that require funding. While easements remain a phenomenal tool, the intense pace and scale of land conversion, natural resource degradation, and community interest means that conservation professionals increasingly need a broader set of strategies at their disposal.
This article explores some diverse and creative land conservation tools beyond traditional easements and acquisitions. These strategies are best understood in relation to the goals of a landowner or land manager, which may include securing temporary protection, generating income from the land, reducing cost, or improving management practices. Some of these tools are easier than others, and some may solve a timing or risk management challenge without achieving permanent land protection. However, all offer an opportunity for practitioners to start thinking about how more land conservation can be achieved beyond traditional easements.
Whereas a conservation easement stands in perpetuity, other agreements to achieve land protection vary in duration or legal strength. A term easement functions much like a traditional easement, but with a set expiration date. Though conservation easements are often preferable for ensuring permanent protection, community benefit, and cost efficiency, a term easement may be a good fit in some management contexts. For example, the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program enables farmers to receive rental payment through a 10-15 year agreement in exchange for foregoing production practices on and improving the environmental condition of sensitive lands2.
Voluntary assurances also restrict land use practices based on conservation goals. They can be structured to include only activities or land cover that is important to a species or habitat at risk. They also can be dissolved or renewed. Examples of these types of agreements include Candidate Conservation Agreements3 and Safe Harbor Agreements4 – both used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure conservation outcomes in the near-term in exchange for exempting landowners from potential restrictions if a species designation were to change in the future.
Some landowners and land managers aim to maximize the income generation potential of their land in conservation to help support restoration activities, best management practices, cash flows for the underlying conservation transaction, or other beneficial activities (e.g. educational programming, land trust operations, etc.). One way to do this is by sustainably harvesting products from the land, such as forest or agriculture products. This requires management and harvest practices that ensure the product regenerates at sustainable levels. More atypical commodities may also include non-timber forest products, berries or herbs used in medicinal or pharmaceutical practices, flowering plants or grasses, mushrooms, lichens, and other specialty items5.
Aside from allowing the harvest of products, there is also the possibility to sell leases for various activities. Farming and hunting leases are a common source of continual income if properly managed. Non-traditional leases for hosting bee colonies or renting out billboards on acreage that borders a roadway can also bring in income from the land.
In some cases, conservation outcomes can be achieved simply by modernizing, modifying, or switching management practices. This allows for landowners to continue to use the land while making conservation-minded changes. A range of programs incentive landowners to use best management practices, or “BMPs.” These may take the form of a tax credit, BMP insurance, direct payment, or price premiums for organic or other certified commodities.
The U.S. Farm Bill includes a number of programs that support the use and adoption of BMPs for achieving conservation outcomes. One is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides incentives to landowners to enact BMPs to achieve environmental quality improvements6. While the Farm Bill is the largest single source of federal funding for conservation in the U.S., several state programs incentivize landowners for sustainable land management and the use of BMPs. One example is the Virginia Agricultural BMP Cost-Share Program administered through local soil and water conservation districts7.
State Revolving Funds (SRFs) have mostly funded traditional “gray” infrastructure for municipal-wastewater treatment and drinking-water projects, but can also provide low-cost financing for green infrastructure or other non-traditional projects8. In a growing number of cases, SRFs financing has been used as part of an easement or acquisition strategy to protect land that is important to water quality, going beyond the strictest definition of water quality management. SRFs can be applied as co-financing, sponsorship, or loans.
Payment for outcomes or services
The emergence of “pay-for-success” models for conservation brings further opportunity. These models involve one or more private investors supporting the development of a project, such as green infrastructure or outdoor recreation, that has at least one measurable outcome9. If a project performs more favorably than expected for the price paid, the investors can see an increased return. If it underperforms against expectations, the investors receive less of a return than expected. This model spreads the risk of doing conservation-oriented projects across investors and allows for a moving scale of “success.”
Payments for ecosystem services create an opportunity to monetize a defined unit of some environmental attribute. Sellers in these ecosystem service markets, also referred to as environmental credit markets, provide measurable goods or services through enrollment and management of their lands according to a protocol10. Buyers purchase credits that represent the value of these goods or services and can be used to offset activity that might degrade existing resources that provide the same ecosystem service.
Robust markets exist for several ecosystem services, mostly driven by regulation. Examples include those for forest carbon, wetland and stream mitigation, and species or habitat mitigation. Emerging or voluntary market activity also exists for soil carbon and blue carbon (carbon captured by ocean and coastal ecosystems)11. Much like conservation easements, some ecosystem service markets come with an agreement to enroll land for a set period of time, that could range from 10-100 years. Ecosystem service markets are continually evolving to simplify and streamline the process for landowners to receive payment for their conservation practices.
Expanding the Toolbox
The tools that enable conservation outcomes are ever-evolving to better supplement the protection created through easement and acquisition strategies. A more holistic consideration of the approaches beyond easements can enable a much greater scope and scale of conservation outcomes. This holds opportunity for advancing landscape-level conservation priorities, restoration and stewardship objectives, local economic development interests, human health needs, and open space access for underserved communities. With this guide as a start, practitioners can begin to think broadly about the tools at their disposal as they work to address complex land management challenges.
1 U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. (2020). The National Conservation Easement Database. https://www.conservationeasement.us/
2 U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2020). Conservation Reserve Program. Farm Service Agency Website. https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/
3 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2020). Candidate Conservation Agreements. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species. https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/CCAs.pdf
4 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2020). Safe Harbor Agreements. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species. https://www.fws.gov/endangered/landowners/safe-harbor-agreements.html
5 Penn State College of Agriculture Sciences. (2020). Forest Stewardship: Earning Income from Your Forestland. Penn State Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/forest-stewardship-earning-income-from-your-forestland
6 U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2020). Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Natural Resources Conservation Service. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/
7 Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. (2020). Virginia Agricultural Incentives. https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/soil-and-water/costshar
8 Martinez, M. (2018). Using State Revolving Funds for Land Conservation. The Conservation Finance Network. https://www.conservationfinancenetwork.org/2018/05/21/using-state-revolving-funds-for-land-conservation
9 Flanagan, S. (2019). Pay-for-Success Financing. The Conservation Finance Network. https://www.conservationfinancenetwork.org/2019/07/24/pay-for-success-financing
10 Forest Trends. (2020). Payments for Ecosystem Services. Ecosystem Marketplace. https://www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/payments-ecosystem-services/
11 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration US Department of Commerce. (2013). What Is Blue Carbon? NOAA's National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html.