Can We Please Stop Calling It Land Protection?

One of the most intriguing, important, and complex discussions going on in conservation right now involves the concept of land protection.  In many ways, the term land protection is flawed, outdated, and even offensive, but we’ve not been able to reach consensus on an alternative.  The term effective conservation is a frontrunner that I think has some promise, but I’m not sure it’s perfect either.

Many conservation organizations were started by people who were rightly concerned that beautiful and important natural areas were being transformed – often irreversibly – in ways that destroyed or greatly diminished their intrinsic value.  Land protection was seen as the way to save places from that fate.  In most cases, successful protection meant putting the land into the ownership of a government or conservation organization so it would remain intact and safe from becoming a housing development, cropfield, or strip mine.  Often, protection also meant safety from logging, grazing, or other practices that were seen as potential threats to the integrity of the ecosystem.

I love having public lands to explore on my vacations, including designated wilderness areas. On the other hand, I feel an urgency to visit them soon because the lack of management many areas receive puts them at great risk of catastrophic wildfires and other threats. These areas are legally protected, but only from selected pressures.

Science and conservation have grown tremendously since the early days of land protection.  We still face huge threats to the health and integrity of ecosystems, but we also recognize that protecting the integrity of land includes much more than just preventing dramatic conversions to suburban housing or tilled land.  It means ensuring land is managed in ways that maintain species diversity, productivity and ecological resilience. 

Drawing lines on a map and designating places as parks or preserves can provide them with the legal status to stave off dramatic conversions.  That’s been a very important strategy across the world. While many parks and preserve are well managed, however, it’s also easy to find examples that are becoming degraded because of insufficient or poor land stewardship.  On the flip side, there are plenty of examples of privately owned lands in terrific shape that are being actively and thoughtfully managed.

What does land protection even mean, then?  The model of land protection through legal designation has worked well in many cases, but also has many flaws, especially because that designation doesn’t always ensure (and often hinders) effective management.  At the same time, while many private lands have a long history of being well-managed and have done a great job of ‘protecting’ ecosystems, there is no guarantee the next owner will take the same approach.  Neither of those examples provides long-term assurance that ecosystems will remain healthy.

On private lands, there are tools such as conservation easements that a private landowner can choose to employ to make sure subsequent owners don’t till up, mine, or build houses on their land in the future.  Easements can be helpful when that kind of conversion is a serious threat, but they don’t typically provide much protection against threats like invasive species, overgrazing or fire suppression.  The greatest worry of landowners who spend a lifetime carefully restoring and/or managing their property is that all their work will be undone after they’re gone. 

One of the best regulators of sustained and thoughtful private land management is the local culture in an area.  When there is a shared land ethic among the majority of people in a geographic area, multiple good things happen.  First, there is a strong social pressure to manage land in ways that conform to that land ethic, even when other approaches might be more financially lucrative.  Because humans are social creatures, that pressure is real and effective. 

Second, a local land ethic is often supported and codified in local laws and customs, building an additional layer of ‘protection’.  Tax laws, zoning regulations, and even the way bank loans are evaluated can all be greatly influenced by a local land ethic.  The result is an entire community of people who have agreed to a social contract regarding the way they interact with the land.

The Nebraska Sandhills is an example of a landscape I think should be considered ‘effectively conserved’. The ranchers there have done an excellent job of keeping the 12 million acre prairie intact and in good condition. There are still conservation concerns, of course, including several serious invasive species, but the best conservation strategy for the Sandhills is to make sure ranchers have the tools and resources they need to continue their thoughtful stewardship of this incredible landscape.

Many indigenous cultures, of course, have sustained a conservation land ethic for eons.  Less mature, but still powerful land ethics exist in agricultural and other rural communities around the world.  Those land ethics vary tremendously, of course, and not all of them emphasize conservation as a top priority.  When they do, though, the result can be a landscape that sustains ecological function to the benefit of both nature and people.

One of the big problems with land protection initiatives is that they usually start by assuming land is currently unprotected if it isn’t a park or preserve or have some other legal status.  That’s a harsh thing to hear if you’re someone whose family or community has spent generations caring for the land in a conscientious way.  It’s especially frustrating when there are so many examples of ‘protected’ lands that are in pretty rough shape.

I think the term effective conservation has a lot of merit because it has less loaded language than land protection and feels more able to account for the various ways of assuring that land will remain healthy for the long term.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could measure conservation success by quantifying the acres and landscapes where land is currently healthy and the factors that promote that health appear stable?  We could then keep track which areas are effectively conserved and work to support the enabling conditions in those places, regardless of what those conditions are.

In some cases, ownership by governments or conservation entities might be an essential part of effectively conserving a site.  That might be especially important where there isn’t an enduring local conservation ethic or where there are significant threats beyond what a local culture can control.  Parks and preserves can also play important roles in specific situations in which a rare ecosystem or species needs a particular kind of management that may not be feasible for most private landowners.

Land owned or controlled by conservation entities can also be critical places to develop and test innovative land stewardship practices.  In many cases those organizations can afford to experiment with approaches that, if they fail, could cause significant financial hardships for most private landowners.  Those organizations often have an easier time building relationships with academic institutions and setting up research projects in ways that might interfere with most private land operations.

Public access is another important purpose for parks and preserves.  It’s critically important that we provide places where members of the general public can interface with the outdoors, explore and learn about nature, and develop their own conservation ethic.  Some private landowners can provide those experiences too, of course, but the majority tend to value privacy and control over who is on their property. 

Toadstool Geologic Park is one of my favorite public areas in Nebraska. It has incredible geologic and paleontologic features and I’m grateful that it has been designated as public land to everyone – from researchers to tourists – has access to it.

However, land counted as effectively conserved should absolutely include land in private ownership too.  There are plenty of landscapes and communities with a strong conservation ethic and a track record of sustaining healthy ecosystems.  Working with those communities to help facilitate their efforts and provide them with the best available information is an extremely effective means of conserving land.  It’s also, by the way, pretty inexpensive.

It’s time to move beyond the outdated conservation strategy of ‘land protection’.  We need a metric for tracking conservation success and progress that is more inclusive and that recognizes the contributions of a broad array of people and communities.  This is about more than just tracking progress.  It’s also about defining what effective conservation means, which allows us to come up with the best strategies to promote and sustain it.

This is a complicated topic that needs a lot of input from many people. To be clear, this blog post reflects my own personal views, not those of The Nature Conservancy or anyone else. If you disagree with my ideas or have additional (constructive) thoughts, please put them in the comments section below.

Photos of the Week

World Water Day was this week (March 22). I don’t usually pay much attention to those kinds of holidays but I think we can all agree water is pretty important. I am very fortunate to live in a state where water is very abundant. That doesn’t keep us from squabbling about it, of course, but I think it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to have what we have.

Here is a celebration of Nebraska water.

Derr Sandpit Wetland, The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 11-20 wide angle lens @11mm. ISO 320, f/8, 1/250 sec.
Cottonwood leaf in a stream. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/16, 1/320 sec.
Smith Falls on the Niobrara River. Nikon 12-28mm lens @12mm. ISO 400, f/8, 1/320 sec.
Wetland in the Nebraska Sandhills. Nikon 12-28mm wide angle lens @12mm. ISO 320, f/22, 1/160 sec.
Wetland rush and stream. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/8, 1/500 sec.
Wetland at the Helzer family prairie. Nikon 12-28 mm lens @12mm. ISO 400, f/14, 1/40 sec.
Beggarsticks (Bidens sp) and duckweed (Lemna sp). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/20, 1/100 sec.
Daniel and Calvin kayaking the Niobrara River. Cell phone photo.
Central Platte River and floodplain prairies. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. DJI Mavic Zoom drone.
Niobrara River before sunrise. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nikon 105mm lens. ISO 250, f/6.3, 1/30 sec.