Private Land Conservation in the Face of Climate Change:
White Paper for the Land Conservation Community (Summary)
By Adena R. Rissman, Fred Cheever, Jessica Owley, Rebecca Shaw, Barton H. (Buzz) Thompson, Jr. and W. William Weeks
Study results suggest that the following changes could help private land conservation efforts reduce vulnerability and increase adaptive capacity in the face of climate change:
- Increase understanding and education. Conservation organizations must do more to inform themselves (as well as staff, board members, and landowners) about the potential effects of climate change on their lands
- Shift land acquisition strategies to account for potential climate impacts. Conservation organizations should evaluate the benefits of protecting new lands, such as migration corridors and species refugia, that could help in climate adaptation, and think twice before acquiring lands that are highly susceptible to climate-induced changes that could undermine the land’s future conservation value
- Consider conservation tools other than perpetual easements. Conservation organizations should consider using tools that provide greater flexibility in either the powers that the organization enjoys over its lands or in the duration of the protection, including fee ownership, option agreements, contractual payments, land-use planning, term easements, moving easements, and annuity easements.
- Ensure that conservation easement terms permit the holder to successfully adapt to climate change. In particular, conservation organizations should incorporate climate change into the easement purposes; provide for biophysical monitoring; allow adequate authority to manage for climate risks and stresses; provide for changed conditions; and authorize needed amendments. Management plans may provide an especially useful means of providing for flexibility over time.
- Provide for more active stewardship of conservation lands. To ensure that they can adapt effectively to climate change, conservation organizations should develop detailed baseline information when land is acquired, provide for adequate stewardship funds, develop policies to guide ongoing management decisions, and, in the case of easements, develop closer relationships with the owners of the underlying land.
- Land management restrictions and options for change in perpetual conservation easements by Adena R. Rissman, Menka Bihari, Christopher Hamilton, Christina Locke, David Lowenstein, Melissa Motew, Jessica Price, and Robert Smail. 2013. Environmental Management.
- Distributed graduate seminars: an interdisciplinary approach to studying land conservation by Jessica Owley and Adena R. Rissman. 2011. Pace Environmental Law Review Online Companion.
- Conservation Easements at the Climate Change Crossroads by Jessica Owley. 2011. Duke Law and Contemporary Problems.
- A Tradable Conservation Easement for Vulnerable Conservation Objectives by W. William Weeks. 2011. Duke Law and Contemporary Problems.
- Evaluating Conservation Effectiveness and Adaptation in Dynamic Landscapes by Adena R. Rissman. 2011. Duke Law and Contemporary Problems.
- White paper for conservation easement holders – coming soon
In July 2013, this work was featured on the University of Wisconsin-Madison article “Reading the fine print: Can conservation easements allow adaptive management?” The article picks up on the Wisconsin case study of 34 conservation easements with the conclusion that more attention needs to be given to easement drafting, monitoring, and on going decision making during the term of the easement. Information and findings detailed in this paper have been used in a webinar for organizations to adopt adaptation strategies for conservation easements.
We presented findings at the Land Trust Alliance Rally – National Land Conservation Conference in 2011 and 2012. In 2013 we presented this powerpoint to government and foundation funders of land conservation, “When Permanence Requires Adaptation: Conservation Easements in Changing Climates and Landscapes.”
Land Trust Alliance featured our LTA Rally and other work in the Fall 2013 edition of Saving Land article “Changes on the Horizon: Land trusts prepare for climate change by exploring adaptation methods.” Professor Rissman has worked with stewardship staff of land trusts in the Midwest to deliver training on adaptation.
Why should we care about this? (from Rissman’s 2011 law review article)
Easements are partial-property-rights agreements that bind future landowners, often in perpetuity. In exchange for restricting future land uses such as building, grazing, or timber harvesting, landowners often receive a tax reduction, cash payment or permit. Non profit land trusts and government agencies rely increasingly on conservation easements to protect ecological and cultural resources on private lands, and occasionally on other organizations’ lands.
Conservation easement purposes, rights, and restrictions are individually negotiated for particular social and ecological landscapes, but the balance they strike between landowner rights and conservation restrictions may not be well tailored for future conditions.
Ecosystems are dynamic, and ecological sciences increasingly recognize non equilibrium processes rather than linear, cyclical, or climax models of change. In order to continue influencing human behavior and affecting environmental conditions, conservation easements must have mechanisms that allow conservation-oriented adaptation over time. A conservation easement that incorporates an adaptive approach would have clear conservation purposes, link those purposes with compliance terms and indicators, have an organization with staff trained to monitor these terms, and have a process for altering future management decisions based on monitoring results. All four of these realms present challenges, given the ways that conservation easements are typically drafted, monitored and enforced.