Adapting Conservation Easements to Climate Change

28 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2014 Last revised: 2 Aug 2016

See all articles by Adena R. Rissman

Adena R. Rissman

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Jessica Owley

University of Miami - School of Law

Barton H. Thompson

Stanford Law School

M. Shaw

Environmental Defense Fund

Date Written: March 25, 2014


Perpetual conservation easements (CEs) are popular for restricting development and land use, but their fixed terms create challenges for adaptation to climate change. The increasing pace of environmental and social change demands adaptive conservation instruments. To examine the adaptive potential of CEs, we surveyed 269 CEs and interviewed 73 conservation organization employees. While only 2% of CEs mentioned climate change, the majority of employees were concerned about climate change impacts. CEs share the fixed-boundary limits typical of protected areas with additional adaptation constraints due to permanent, partial property rights. CEs often have multiple, potentially conflicting purposes that protect against termination but complicate decisions about principled, conservation-oriented adaptation. Monitoring is critical for shaping adaptive responses, but only 35% of CEs allowed organizations to conduct ecological monitoring. Additionally, CEs provided few requirements or incentives for active stewardship of private lands. We found four primary options for changing land use restrictions: CE amendment, management plan revisions, approval of changes through discretionary consent, and updating laws or policies codified in the CE. Conservation organizations, funders, and the IRS should promote processes for principled adaptation in CE terms, provide more active stewardship of CE lands, and consider alternatives to the CE tool.

Keywords: climate change, conservation easements, land trusts, private land conservation, protected areas

Suggested Citation

Rissman, Adena R. and Owley, Jessica and Thompson, Barton H. and Shaw, M., Adapting Conservation Easements to Climate Change (March 25, 2014). Conservation Letters, 2014, SUNY Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-022, Available at SSRN:

Adena R. Rissman

University of Wisconsin-Madison ( email )

1630 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53706-1481
United States


Jessica Owley (Contact Author)

University of Miami - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 248087
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States

Barton H. Thompson

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-2518 (Phone)
650-725-8509 (Fax)

M. Shaw

Environmental Defense Fund ( email )

1875 Connecticut ave
257 Park Avenue South
Washington, DC 20009
United States
415 293 6159 (Phone)
415 293 6051 (Fax)


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