The group also pointed out that the ability to achieve a desired level of conservation is altered by two key issues: the role of education in improving public understanding and support of conservation and the role of property rights and the priorities of the tenure holder.
Education: A great deal of effort was spent on considering how conservation groups, government, or others can most effectively educate the public about the value of conservation. That is, what can conservationists do to move the general public toward an individual conservation ethic?
The group agreed that conservation efforts were more likely to be successful and widely supported if conservationists were able to move the uninitiated public though a continuum of awareness about the value of conservation. This means that group members argued for an educational process that first developed a public interest in conservation, then encouraged a broad public conversation about it, and then moved the public to more of an advocacy role where they broadly support and seek out more.
Such an effort would entail moving past the current and widely practiced “preaching to the choir” approach, to bringing a larger portion of the population into the mix as well. Working group participants recognized that those people who already support conservation efforts likely do not require further convincing and argued that there was value in expanding education and outreach to the uninitiated public.
Chippewa Nature Center’s work elaborated on the process of creating new conservation advocates. Their activities prioritize reaching out people that do not have a strong connection to nature. Their target audience did not grow up hunting, camping, hiking, etc. and are likely to have come from an urban or suburban setting. Many of their first-time visitors are unlikely to have seen wildlife in their natural habitat, and grew up focused on urban sports like baseball or basketball, rather than recreating in a wilderness setting. Chippewa’s focus, therefore, is to have initial visits to the Center prioritize “entry level” experiences that teach visitors the most basic facts about the natural environment. By doing this, they allow them to build an affinity for natural areas, trees and wildlife at their own pace.
Other examples of effective introductions to nature discussed include:
- Self-guided interpretive information offered at the Little Forks preserves
- The Canopy Walk at the Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens
Participants discussed the idea that the public is willing to spend private dollars to enjoy and protect the ecosystem, a benefit that society as a whole enjoys. That is, some conservation supporters are willing to help cover the costs of positive externalities in the form of ecosystem services like cleaner air, cleaner water, etc., for the public at large by investing their own money in conservation. When the public at large is not willing to make this type of investment, the working group wondered whether demands for public dollars to support those open spaces are just being pushed onto the public by a select group of special interests?
Another issue that the working group included in the education issue, but that blended between the two categories — education or property rights — was how conservationists could encourage landowner support. With private land making up more than half of the forested areas in the United States, at least some private landowners would necessarily need to be active participants in overall conservation efforts.[*]
Here, working group members reiterated the idea that working with landowners could be either the easiest or most difficult task that conservationists would face. That is because a cooperative and interested landowner would be far more likely to encourage conservation while a noncooperative or disengaged landowner could resist conservation efforts, choosing to develop, conserve or use their land for another purpose. Comments from the group pointed out that a textbook conception of a perfectly efficient market requires that individual actors make fully informed and rational decisions. However, a landowner, with a competing viewpoint and sufficient financial resources, could manage their property in a manner that government managers, other landowners, or conservation groups do not consider “rational.”
While this is true, decisions to protect or develop certain areas are clearly, and have always been, preference-based. Therefore, building consensus on what constitutes a “rational” land use decision would change depending on an individual or group’s end goals. Additionally, if a landowner’s choices were so profoundly damaging that they negatively impacted other adjacent property rights, they could rightly be compelled, via the courts, to change that behavior.
Another way to state this concept is that a property owner cannot claim a property right to infringe on the rights of their neighbors. For example, some landowners have used Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus carthartica) — classified as an invasive species both by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — as an ornamental shrub because of its ability to thrive in a variety of soils and climates and for its deep green foliage.[†] The landowner can make a strong argument about their right to plant Common Buckthorn until they allow that plant to propagate itself outside of their property boundaries.
Adding to the depth of the issue, Chippewa Nature Center interjected that, while invasive species are a problem for the state and conservation areas, they can also be used as an educational opportunity. They described how they rank areas within their preserve where an invasive species like Common Buckthorn has become established as high, medium, or low depending on the extent of regeneration. After prioritizing some for treatment to remove the invasive species and leaving others, they classify areas with dense buckthorn growth, that has pushed out native plants, as “Buckthorn alleys.” Those areas become part of their education programs to show how proactive conservation efforts (i.e., actively removing invasive species) compares with passive or reactive conservation (i.e., simply leaving an area to grow without intervention). Teaching the public how an invasive species can push out native species encourages the public to stop actively planting or propagating or encouraging, or even simply ignoring, their growth.
It was clear that some working group participants expected landowners to take on an equally text-book-defined Leopoldian land ethic.[‡] But, once again, whether that ethic is rational or not depends on one’s preferences. For example, one working group participant described the anecdotal case of a farming landowner. The farmer was uninterested in planting marginal areas of the farm with wildflowers to increase pollinator habitat. However, a neighboring farm family did plant pollinator species in the marginal areas of their farm. This prompted the farmer’s spouse to advocate for pollinator plantings on their own farm for the aesthetic quality. The farmer eventually capitulated, purchased the seed, and spent time working marginal areas of the farm to provide pollinator habitat. From a conservationist worldview, the decision was eminently rational. The farmer’s business plan might have suggested a different view.
Property Rights: The second issue that consumed much of the working group’s time was the issue of tenure-holding nonprofits and their rights to make management decisions about a portion of the land base.
One value of conservation organizations lies in the fact that they often have fee-simple ownership the land being managed. That ownership entails their legal right to control access to the land and to make management decisions for their preserves.[§] Publicly managed natural areas must operate in a decidedly different sense. These areas can be caught up in the legislative and regulatory notion that a natural equilibrium, or balanced end state, exists in nature. The Mackinac Center publication, “Conflict to Cooperation” described this legislative and regulatory pressure that is imposed on public land managers, often forcing them to work toward preservation of most natural areas.
"A number of requirements — legislative, administrative and public demands — impose competing priorities on federal land managers. They develop in part because of two competing views of how to best manage the environment … Federal land managers recognize how these competing interests can effectively stall management of national lands and preclude any but the most basic wilderness recreation uses. They refer to this reality as their “process predicament.” … Conservation-focused legislation requires federal managers to allow natural resources — timber, water, wildlife, minerals — on or under federal lands to be used, or extracted, as a means of meeting basic human needs. Preservation-focused legislation, however, often forbids that same resource use and extraction, focusing instead on protecting natural areas in an allegedly pristine state. Handling these conflicting directives only increases the process predicament for federal land managers, as attempting to resolve these conflicts requires maneuvering through and around significant procedural hurdles." [**]
Much of the stricture faced by public land managers is based in the romanticized notions that public lands must be — or that they even could be — managed in a pristine, or wholly “untrammeled” state.[††] The PERC publication, “Environmental Policy in the Anthropocene” describes “a new generation of ecologists [that] is challenging the idea of an inherent balance in nature based on the lack of empirical support. Moreover, scientists are concluding that human action cannot readily be separated from the natural world.”[‡‡]
Natural areas management is necessarily a balancing of human desires and priorities. Romanticized notions of returning an area to some prehuman or at least pre-Western contact state are being abandoned with the recognition that any human management decision — including managing an area as wilderness — will prioritize human values. Where management decisions about public lands are often hampered by the value-based process predicament described above, privately owned natural areas and preserves can offer another option because they do not face the same restrictions on their management.
For example, Little Forks’ Averill Preserve meets the preferences of its benefactors by focusing on an interpretive expression of Michigan’s historical use of the Tittabawassee River as a log staging area. A necessary extension of this value includes the conservation of the river’s riparian ecosystem.[§§] By prioritizing these values, The Little Forks Conservancy necessarily precludes some other values, such as preservation of old growth forest, or managing for endangered species habitat. At the same time, Little Forks owns different preserves that can focus on other selected values. For example, the Forestview Preserve focuses on preservation of wetland ecosystems and local amphibian species.[***]
It is also worthwhile to reiterate the goal of the working group here by noting that prioritizing private conservation does not detract from public actions to promote and preserve wilderness in national and state parks or wilderness preserves. Furthermore, private preserves, that can legally preclude human presence are also a possibility.
Conservation easements: Conservation easements are also a common economic tool to promote conservation on lands that are not owned by conservation groups. Easements are legal agreements that bound landowners to preserve certain elements of a property or to carry out some land use consistent with the established conservation goals for the land. Depending on state laws, the landowner can be paid or receive a favorable tax benefit for the foregone value of the land.
Those who recommend easements as a workable conservation tool were cautioned about what activities that tool would incentivize. Little Forks noted that experiences in Colorado tended to push interest toward the “best land.” This is, of course, a preference-based description of land that contains impressive viewscapes or imposing geography vs. a broad, representative sample of biomes within the broader landscape. This preference tends to skew the amount of land that is conserved away from that broad, representative sample. They also recounted how easements have come under increasing scrutiny due to their potential abuses associated with “syndicated easements” that involve the trading of over-valued charitable and poorly monitored land donations.[†††]
The working group recognized that, while protecting the land under contracts is a good idea in theory, conservation easements can be far more interesting to people who have not been involved with their on-the-ground management. One owner may fully support and implement the easement restrictions, but a change in ownership or financial position could lead to tensions and pressures to change the terms of the easement contract. Critiques of easements focused on the fact that there is little concrete regulation of the number or type of easements.
They were also critiqued in that while they do provide an initial infusion of money into a group, they do not provide an ongoing stream of income. So, while an organization might be able to make use of the initial injection of cash, easements require a long-term commitment to monitor and enforce. Enforcement efforts can quickly eat up limited budgets and make it very easy for the easement owner to lose interest as funds are expended and begin to put financial pressures on other priorities. Group members also pointed out that it is very easy for the easement owner to be viewed as the “bad guy” by the land owner if they must enforce contract provisions requiring (or prohibiting) certain activities on the land.
A 250,000 acre parcel owned by the King Kamehameha School in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was discussed as an example. The land was part of a larger area offered for sale by the King Kamehameha Trust.[‡‡‡] Following the sale, a “working forest conservation easement” was purchased between 2002 and 2010 by a public-private partnership between Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and Natural Resources Trust Fund, and The Nature Conservancy.[§§§] TNC noted that they took the easement route because they were outbid for a fee-simple purchase. Over time, managing the easement has proved difficult for state managers.
[*]“Who Owns America’s Trees, Woods, and Forests?: Results from the U.S. Forest Service 2011-2013 National Woodland Owner Survey” (U.S. Department of Agriculture, March 2015), https://perma.cc/72F8-9BHU.
[†]“Common Buckthorn” (U.S. Department of Agriculture), https://perma.cc/UH59-SJCM; “Common Buckthorn” (Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Feb. 2012), https://perma.cc /UKT9-J5GD.
[‡]For more information, see the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s discussion of “The Land Ethic” at https://www.aldoleopold.org/ about/the-land-ethic/.
[§]Fee simple ownership entails a different responsibility than owning or overseeing the enforcement of conservation easements, which by their nature constrain the use of easement owner to a contracted use.
[**]Jason Hayes, “Conflict to Collaboration: Collaborative Management of Federal Lands in Michigan” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Oct. 30, 2018), https://www.mackinac.org/ conflict_to_cooperation.
[††]Public Law 88-577, “The Wilderness Act” (Sec. 2(c)), https://perma.cc/485U-3VAT.
[‡‡]James L. Huffman et al., “Environmental Policy in the Anthropocene” (Property and Environment Research Center, 2016), 10, https://perma.cc/Z2ZZ-S22T.
[§§]For more information, see: https://www.littleforks.org/ averill.html
[***]For more information, see: https://www.littleforks.org/ forestview.html
[†††]Adam Looney, “Charitable Contributions of Conservation Easements” (The Brookings Institution, May 2017), https:// perma.cc/8XCQ-3PSA.
[‡‡‡]“Governor Leads Effort to Defend U.P. Land,” (State of Michigan, 2020), https://perma.cc/BT39-AKD6
[§§§]“Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes of June 13, 2012” (Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, June 13, 2012), https://perma.cc/M4N8-2NCN.