This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is Our Land: How Private Landownwers Can Help Save America’s Forests

"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness." -- John Muir (1838-1914), founder of Sierra Club

Socially-responsible investors often choose to invest in companies that are actively engaged in sustainable land-use practices or conservation. But making an investment that helps to create a sustainable environment for future generations doesn't necessarily involve a financial commitment, especially if you're a private landowner -- and especially if your land has trees on it. Instead of investing in companies or portfolios that are engaged in ecosystem conservation, you could enter into "conservation easements," joining forces with an organization, usually a land trust, that will ensure that your land will never be used in an unsustainable way.

This can be a particularly effective tool to conserve forests, which are vital to the health of the global environment but are being lost to deforestation and land-use conversion at an alarming rate, about 13 million hectares (32 million acres or 50,000 square miles) globally every year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). That's more area than the state of New York. But it's not New York that scientists and forest conservationists are worried about the most -- it's the states of the American south.

The US Forest Service estimates that 12 million acres of forests in the south will be lost to suburban encroachment by 2020. According to the agency, there are 10 million private forestland owners who own a majority -- 57 percent -- of the nation's forest lands. Preventing those lands from being unsustainably developed is key to maintaining the health of the nation's ecosystems, as well as preventing further anthropogenic climate change. So the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the American Forest Foundation (AFF) have a message to landowners in the American South: Help save America's forests.

A CONSERVATION STRATEGY WITH FINANCIAL BENEFITS

A conservation easement is defined by WRI as "a voluntary, legally enforceable land preservation agreement between two parties wherein a landowner sells or donates the development rights to a tract of land to a qualified holding organization, such as a land trust, effectively preventing forest conversion or other stipulated activities, usually in perpetuity."

This conservation approach has been gaining popularity. In 1990, a mere 500,000 acres were protected under conservation easement. Last year, that number reached 30 million acres. But the numbers in the American south are not looking so rosy. "The southern United States currently has a disproportionately low share of the nation's private land under conservation easement," according to the WRI and AFF report, Gaining Ground: Increasing Conservation Easements in the U.S. South. "Although the South constitutes approximately 37 percent of the private land area in the United States, to date it has only 18 percent of the country’s total conservation easement acres." The report notes that the south also has a disproportionately low share of the total number of American easements, with only 9 percent.

Perhaps those landowners don't realize that conservation easements have several compelling features. Though the land is officially conserved, landowners retain ownership. The land can still be used by the landowner for such things as harvesting timber, so long as they follow certain conservation guidelines. And landowners can reap several financial benefits, such as reductions in income, estate and property tax, as well as revenues from ecosystem service markets.

TO HELP FUTURE GENERATIONS BREATHE EASIER, SAVE THE LUNGS OF THE EARTH

Forests are so essential to life on Earth that they are known as "the lungs of the Earth." In addition to helping us and other aerobic animals breathe by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, they provide us with timber for building materials, paper goods and fuelwood. They also provide a host of ecosystem services, such as sequestering 86 percent of the planet's terrestrial above-ground carbon and 73 percent of the planet's soil carbon. These "carbon sinks" prevent carbon from being absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere and contributing to global warming. Forests also protect watersheds and conserve biodiversity, which in turn provides many other services, such as food and medicines and maintaining the overall health of forest ecosystems.

But the loss of the world's forests is one of the main reasons that carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere, causing global warming, which heats up the Earth’s surface temperature, causes the sea level to rise and makes life very hard for many species around the globe, such as polar bears who have no more sea ice to hunt for food or raise their young and humans who live by coastlines that are disappearing. More than 1.6 billion humans and countless other species rely on forests to survive.

"It is up to us as lawmakers to provide the resources and streamlined processes that will enable our federal forest managers to become the best possible steward of our lands," said Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.). Considering the rise in conservation easements -- and hopefully a higher engagement in this practice in the American south -- the nation's best forest stewards may actually turn out to be private landowners.

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NOTES

Muir, John. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir; edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe (University of Wisconsin Press, 1938, republished 1979)
http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2005/1000127/index.html
http://www.seesouthernforests.org/discover-southern-forests/drivers-change/drivers-change
http://www.wri.org/publication/gaining-ground
Ibid.
http://pdf.wri.org/gaining_ground.pdf
Sedjo, Roger. The Carbon Cycle and Global Forest Ecosystem. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 70, 1993, pp. 295-307.
http://www.fao.org/kids/en/forestry.html

image: Lost Pines Forest, Texas (credit: Wing-Chi Poon, Wikimedia Commons)