One of the biggest, but rarely talked about threats to prairie conservation comes during transitions of land ownership. I’m frequently approached by people who have poured their heart and soul into restoring and/or managing a nice parcel of land and are wrestling with how to make sure their investment isn’t squandered after they’re gone. I think about the same issue with my own family prairie, though I hope I have many decades before the issue becomes urgent.
Conservation easements are a tool that can provide some help, and they are absolutely valuable in landscapes where prairies are rapidly being turned into crop land. However, easements don’t address all threats and come with a number of complications and disadvantages. If you’re not familiar with conservation easements, they are essentially a legal agreement made between a landowner and a land trust organization in which the landowner gives or sells certain land rights to the land trust. A landowner might agree, for example, not to ever construct a building on the site, till the land for crops, or do other things that would destroy the prairie or threaten the conservation value of the property. That agreement becomes legally binding and is attached to the deed so that all future landowners have to abide by the same restrictions (for the length of the easement, which is often perpetual). Typically, those restrictions are difficult, if not impossible, to alter once everything has been signed.
Easements can help eliminate some clear threats to prairies such as housing development or tillage, but easements are not well-designed to ensure that current or future landowners control invasive plants or otherwise manage the site to benefit plant diversity or habitat quality. A prairie destroyed by chronic overgrazing or invasive trees is just as destroyed as it would be by conversion to a soybean field, but most easements can’t protect against those first two threats.
It’s very difficult to use any kind of legal contract to dictate how a prairie should be managed for the long-term. Challenges to prairies change over time, as do our best ideas about how to address them. Easements, however, are static and inflexible. We need a better option.
The crux of this issue is that every landowner wants to know that the next landowner will do their best to take care of the property. Sometimes, that assurance comes because land is transferred to a family member who has already invested time, energy and passion into the property. Often, however, family members are uninterested or unable to own or manage the land, so the current owner has to look elsewhere.
What if there was a kind of online dating site for prairie owners and conservation-minded people looking to purchase a prairie? There are myriad ways this could be handled, but the basic idea is that someone looking for a successor could post information about their prairie and the kinds of work they’ve invested in it. Meanwhile, potential buyers could post a profile of themselves that outlines their interest and (potentially) expertise in prairie ownership and conservation. If two people see each other as potential partners, they could set up ways to further explore that relationship.
There are lots of ways to help this idea succeed, including training and certification programs for prospective buyers, educational and financial assistance for both current and future owners, and many others. Clearly, there are also many ways this model could fail, but if even if it only works in some cases, it seems a lot better than our current lack of options. If every passionate prairie owner passes their site on to another passionate prairie owner, it creates a self-perpetuating chain of land protection based on relationships and trust. The model could work equally well for both tiny prairies in the eastern tallgrass prairie and large ranches in the west.
Legally-binding land protection strategies are typically expensive and limited in scope and effectiveness. Conservation organizations can only buy and manage so many parcels of land, and too much conservation and/or government ownership creates significant social friction in some landscapes. Easements can protect against some threats, but not others, and placing long-term or permanent restrictions on land isn’t a desired solution for many landowners.
Simply helping landowners find appropriate successors for their land seems like a potentially valuable addition to the currently available options. Whether that comes in the form of an online dating-style website or something completely different, I love the idea of helping people find someone they can trust to carry on a conservation legacy. I don’t love it enough to set something up myself, because that kind of thing is not my strength. However, I’d sure be happy if someone else wanted to step up and do it! (Or let me know if something like this already exists – I can’t be the only one thinking along these lines.)