Climate Change Challenges for Land Conservation: Rethinking Conservation Easements, Strategies, and Tools
53 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2018 Last revised: 27 Nov 2018
Date Written: July 23, 2018
Climate change has significant consequences for land conservation. Government agencies and nonprofit land trusts heavily rely on perpetual conservation easements. However, climate change and other dynamic landscape changes raise questions about the effectiveness and adaptability of permanent conservation instruments like conservation easements. Building upon a study of 269 conservation easements and interviews with seventy conservation-easement professionals in six different states, we examine the adaptability of conservation easements to climate change. We outline four potential approaches to enhance conservation outcomes under climate change: (1) shift land-acquisition priorities to account for potential climate-change impacts; (2) consider conservation tools other than perpetual conservation easements; (3) ensure that the terms of conservation easements permit the holder to adapt to climate change successfully; and (4) provide for more active stewardship of conservation lands. There is still a good deal of uncertainty as to the legal fate of a conservation easement that no longer meets its original purposes. Many state laws provide that conservation easements can be modified or terminated in the same manner as traditional easements. Yet, conservation easements are in many ways unlike other easements. The beneficiary is usually the public, not merely a neighboring landowner, and the holder is always a non-profit conservation organization or a government agency. Thus, there is a case to be made for adaptive protection. An overly narrow focus on perpetual property rights could actually thwart efforts to meet adaptation needs over the long term. We call for careful attention to ensuring conservation outcomes in dynamic landscapes over time.
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