Original Post by Andrew Mengel:
1. How do these controversies and changes highlight the vulnerabilities of a collaborative agreement like this, as compared to more rigid regulations like ESA listing?
The sage-grouse was removed from its protected status in 2015 when the USFWS determined that the conservation efforts had been successful to the point that the sage-grouse’s inclusion as an ESA listed species was no longer warranted (DOI 2015). Changes made to the existing land management plans that included opening up “sustainable economic development” on portions of the protected land were made as part of the collaborate adaptive management process (DOI 2015). These changes included input from state, federal, and local partners and public comments.
The changes made to the management plans and the opening up of previously restricted habitats to development points to one of the most significant flaws of conservation through regulatory action or through the discretion of administrative agencies. Administrations can change and regulatory interpretations can change, including interpretations of more rigid regulations such as the ESA. In 2019 the Trump administration added new rules that made it easier to remove species from the ESA list and weakened protection for endangered species. This move cleared the way for more drilling and energy development on public lands where protected species live.
I think that all these vulnerabilities highlight the need for conservation through ownership. Lands held in a combination of public and private trust through federal, state, and private land conservancy organizations prevents this type of resource exploitation. The language of a conservation easement is not open to interpretation and rule changes the same way a management plan or regulatory law can be. A more definite means of habitat conservation needs to be in place in order to permanently conserve these spaces and ensure their long-term stewardship held in public trust.
2. What successes and “lessons learned” might you take from the sage grouse conservation initiative to apply to other resource management contexts?
The sage-grouse plan was successful in its intent, as proven with the removal of the species from its ESA listing in 2015. The issue with the plan is its failure to address the stewardship of the habitats beyond that point. Once the initial objectives of the plan were achieved restrictions began to be lifted, which could have significant negative consequences down the line as previously protected habitats are removed for other purposes such as oil and gas exploration. I think the lesson that should be learned here is that there needs to be consideration on what will happen after the management objectives of the original plan are achieved and how the longer term protection of ESA’s listed species habitats will be protected.
USDA/NRCS. 2015. Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation. Washington D.C.: USDA. https://www.fs.fed.us/sites/default/files/sage-grouse-overview-.pdfLinks to an external site..
Department of Interior. 2019. “Energy Revenues and Disbursements Soar Under the Trump Administration Revenues and Disbursements Nearly Double FY 2016 Totals.” DOI Press Release, 10/24/2019. Accessed: Feb, 17, 2021.. https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/energy-revenues-and-disbursements-soar-under-trump-administrationLinks to an external site.
Department of Interior. 2019. “Historic Conservation Campaign Protects Greater Sage-Grouse.” DOI Press Release, 9/22/2015. Accessed: Feb, 17, 2021.. https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/historic-conservation-campaign-protects-greater-sage-grouseLinks to an external site.
Friedman, Lisa. “U.S. Significantly Weakens Endangered Species Act.” The New York Times. August 12, 2019. Accessed February 17, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/12/climate/endangered-species-act-changes.html.
I appreciate the point about the need for conservation through ownership. I would recommend the purchase-protect-resale (PPR) program which is used by conservation organizations in a number of countries to facilitate the protection of private land (Hardy et al. 2018). It’s essentially similar to a conservation easement but incorporates specific ideas about how to conduct transactions in a financially logical manner (Hardy et al. 2018). PPR approaches can be financially self-sustaining (Hardy et al. 2018). Identifying property types that meet conservation objectives and recover costs within a reasonable time frame and drawing insights from economics to assist in decision making, could increase the effectiveness of PPR and improve conservation outcomes (Hardy et al. 2018).
There are two main ways to actualize PPR programs. One is to use a revolving fund to purchase private land with conservation value and then resell it to owners with a permanent conservation agreement attached to the property title (Hardy et al. 2018). Fund capital is replenished primarily by reselling purchased properties, ideally at prices that recover all purchase, transaction and ongoing costs, with replacement capital raised if needed (Hardy et al. 2018). The replenished capital is then used to purchase additional properties (Hardy et al. 2018). The second way to actualize PPR programs is to use a revolving loan fund whereby fund capital is distributed for the same purpose, either within a conservation organization (an internal revolving fund), or to a separate organization or individual (an external revolving fund), with an agreement for the borrower to return the money (often with low or zero interest) within a given time frame (Hardy et al. 2018). A general benefit of PPR is that it can be used to conserve expensive land and/or properties with high conservation value (Hardy et al. 2018). The program was stated as having particular benefit where voluntary protection or acquisition approaches were unlikely to be feasible, for example, where landowners had been unwilling to participate or where acquisition without resale was too expensive (Hardy et al. 2018). That said, a crucial benefit is its shifting of land ownership to conservation-minded owners (Hardy et al. 2018). PPR programs can minimize resale challenges by focusing on properties attractive to conservation-minded buyers and designing agreements that allow for some residential and recreational use while simultaneously protecting ecological value (Hardy et al. 2018).
Hardy, Mathew J, James A Fitzsimons, Sarah A Bekessy and Ascelin Gordon. 2018. “Purchase, protect, resell, repeat: an effective process for conserving biodiversity on private land?”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 16(6): 336-344.
Reply by Andrew Mengel:
I appreciate you bringing this strategy up, as it is one of the best ways that private conservancy organizations can place conservation easements on private properties. These types of easements generally limit future development on the property as you mentioned which means that the cost of this conservation strategy boils down to the difference in value of the property before the conservation easement with full development rights and the value after the conservation easement in place. Essentially the conservancy organization pays for the easement out of pocket minus any other transactional costs involved with the exchanges and their own administrative costs. This strategy is great for placing conservation easements on agricultural properties, as many farmers who are interested in sustainable agriculture have limited capital to purchase an unencumbered property before a conservation easement is placed on the property.