Conservation Easements - Biodiversity Protection and Private Use


Conservation easements are one of the primary tools for conserving biodiversity on private land. Despite their increasing use, little quantitative data are available on what species and habitats conservation easements aim to protect, how much structural development they allow, or what types of land use they commonly permit. To address these knowledge gaps, we surveyed staff responsible for 119 conservation easements established by the largest nonprofit easement holder, The Nature Conservancy, between 1985 and 2004. Most easements (80%) aimed to provide core habitat to protect species or communities on-site, and nearly all were designed to reduce development. Conservation easements also allowed for a wide range of private uses, which may result in additional fragmentation and habitat disturbance. Some residential or commercial use, new structures, or subdivision of the property were permitted on 85% of sampled conservation easements. Over half (56%) allowed some additional buildings, of which 60% restricted structure size or building area. Working landscape easements with ranching, forestry, or farming made up nearly half (46%) of the easement properties sampled and were more likely than easements without these uses to be designated as buffers to enhance biodiversity in the surrounding area. Our results demonstrate the need for clear restrictions on building and subdivision in easements, research on the compatibility of private uses on easement land, and greater public understanding of the trade-offs implicit in the use of conservation easements for biodiversity conservation.

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