Land trusts can do more harm than good


STANFORD, Calif. – Land trusts that focus on biodiversity conservation should consider the impact of real estate market forces when acquiring land, according to a new study to be published in the March 13 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Without good data and an understanding of the laws of supply and demand, land trusts risk doing more harm than good for biodiversity, the authors say.
Making an impact. “Until recently, conservation buyers were a very small part of the land market – they didn’t have much impact,” said Gretchen Daily, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and co-author of the study.
“But now there are over 1,500 land trusts operating in the United States, and together they can change land prices and patterns of development.”
The full or partial purchase of land has become a cornerstone of efforts to conserve biodiversity in countries with strong private property rights, the authors write, but harm arises when land trust activity elevates land prices and displaces development onto lands where conservation is needed.
“Land trusts have become so powerful that their collective purchases could actually backfire by drawing development toward sites with high conservation value,” Daily explains.
“Protecting lands that lack biodiversity is not only a waste of money but undermines future opportunities by increasing development pressure on unprotected lands.”
Market feedbacks. For the study, lead author Paul Armsworth of Sheffield University, Peter Kareiva of The Nature Conservancy, James Sanchirico of Resources for the Future and Daily conducted an economic analysis of land-buying practices based on a variety of assumptions about where biodiversity resides.
They found that market feedbacks can be especially worrisome if lands outside of nature reserves have considerable ecological value, and if there are developers keen to capitalize on amenities that result from conservation.
“Land trusts are good at integrating biological, recreational and other considerations in setting priorities for making purchases,” Daily said.
“Now, for the first time, it’s becoming important to factor in land market dynamics as well, or well-intentioned actions may do more harm than good.”
Big investments. Land trusts have invested billions of dollars on private land conservation in recent years, according the authors, particularly The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest land trust, which has spent about $6 billion in the last 50 years to protect more than 16 million acres of private land in the United States.
“With that level of investment, it is time for conservationists to heed economic forces with the same vigor they heed biodiversity trends,” Daily said.
“The ecological value of lands outside nature reserves and the importance of accurate species inventories cannot be overstated if we are to pursue conservation in a responsible manner.
“These results provide a compelling demonstration of the need for land trusts to become more economically savvy in their operations.”


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