Transparency limited when it comes to conserved private lands

Jenny Seifert
UW Madison
Conserved private land purchased for an easement on this southern California hillslope serves as mitigation for neighboring urban development.

MADISON - American taxpayers spend millions of dollars each year to conserve privately owned lands. These lands provide public benefits like timber, water quality protection and food. Yet, information about conserved private lands - including where they are and what protections are in place - can be hard to find, impeding the effectiveness of conservation efforts and taxpayer investments.

A new study led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined why private-land conservation data is sometimes inaccessible and found that limited capacity within some federal agencies as well as laws prohibiting others from disclosing certain information are to blame.

"It's difficult or impossible to advance planning, monitoring and evaluation without good information about where private land conservation is happening," says lead author Adena Rissman, an associate professor of environmental policy and management in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology.

The money Americans spend on private land conservation often takes the form of subsidies or tax breaks to landowners for stewardship practices, like conservation farming or saving habitat for wildlife. Without access to good data, it is harder for government agencies and nonprofits to target these public investments efficiently and ensure taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck.

"There is limited funding for conservation, so we want to use conservation dollars in the places where they can make the biggest difference," says Rissman.

Additionally, says co-author Jessica Owley, the public often gives up the protection of environmental amenities, like wetlands, to allow development because it's told other lands are being protected in return. The research suggests it may be hard to confirm that such protection actually takes place.

"When we forgo both tax dollars and ecosystem services, we should be able to understand what the tradeoffs are and make sure they are worthwhile," says Owley, a law professor at the University at Buffalo (State University of New York).