"I began promoting the Land Trust Movement in Greece in 2002. At the time, none of the Greek NGOs that I contacted wanted to accept my proposals, which were implemented as part of my Tilos Island project. Now, a new report and EU Green Week session look at ways to involve more private landowners in nature conservation." Constantine Alexander.
Despite the existence of EU legislation on nature conservation, just 16% of Habitats Directive-listed habitats, 23% of listed species and 52% of bird species have favourable conservation status, according to the latest report on the State of Nature in the EU.
The European Commission is keen to stimulate private land conservation to help protect biodiversity further and reach the objectives of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020. New private initiatives are particularly important as a complement to existing public funding mechanisms in light of limited budgets in the wake of the financial and economic crisis.
Consequently, the LIFE Programme has launched a new report, Alternative Ways to Support Private Land Conservation, written by Tilmann Disselhoff, which looks at various methods of private land conservation and incentives that can prompt landowners to surpass minimum conservation standards. Mr Disselhoff is a LIFE Nature project evaluator who specialises in conservation financing and private land conservation.
Another study currently being prepared by NEEMO aims to analyse the LIFE projects which include examples of conservation incentives and mechanisms involving private land owners. The report is due for publication by the end of 2015 and will cover some 60 projects in 20 Member States.
A LIFE-led session was already held on this topic at the Green Week annual conference in Brussels on 5 June. Introducing the event, Angelo Salsi, Head of the LIFE and CIP Eco-innovation Unit in the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME), said around 50% of the Natura 2000 network is in the hands of private landowners. Meanwhile, around 30% of the LIFE budget has been invested in buying land for conservation purposes over the past 21 years. However, Mr Salsi questioned whether this was sustainable in the long term, adding that it was therefore necessary to find ways to engage private landowners more in conservation efforts.
Tools for private conservation.
Vesna Valant, Adviser in DG Environment's Directorate for Natural Capital.
Vesna Valant, Adviser in DG Environment's Directorate for Natural Capital, outlined five possible mechanisms detailed in the new report - privately protected areas (PPAs), safe harbour agreements (SHAs), the right of first refusal, conservation easements and conservation leases. She also noted the importance of tax relief to ensure such incentives work, for instance, exemptions from income or capital gains tax, or reduced rates of inheritance tax.
PPAs are a voluntary measure by private landowners to protect their properties (perhaps for profit, scientific, cultural or religious motives). Under SHAs, landowners implement restorative conservation measures; in return they are guaranteed that no further conservation measures or restrictions will be imposed on the land. Through the right of first refusal, an owner selling a property must offer it to the person who holds the right. This mechanism is already quite common in the EU, for example in Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Slovenia.
Conservation easements grant a public authority or conservation organisation the right to restrict land use on properties they do not own; these are contracts between two private parties which are usually binding for present and future owners of the land. Conservation leases give temporary use rights for private properties so that conservation actions can be implemented; they are often an alternative to land acquisition when purchase is not possible.
Ms Valant also spoke about the differences between the EU and the USA when it comes to private land conservation. She noted that private landowners have more freedom to use their land as they see fit in the USA, and pointed to the strength of the philanthropic sector there. Conservation easements are the most common tool in the USA, due to enabling legislation and a "favourable fiscal framework" (including tax relief).
By contrast, in the EU instruments such as those listed above are still in their infancy. "They are limited to just a few Member States or a few pilot projects," according to Ms Valant. Whilst tax and property law comes within the competence of national governments rather than the EU, she said the latter could provide support to create "a culture of private land conservation within Member States". Ms Valant recommended looking at key ingredients of successful models from around the world and trying to replicate some of these.
The view from the USA.
James Levitt of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Harvard University gave an overview of private land protection in the USA. The land trust movement there started in the 1890s as a small local initiative in Massachusetts. Since then, it has grown to a national level, with approximately 50 million acres (20 million ha) protected by local and state land trusts as well as national organisations.
Mr Levitt highlighted a range of benefits arising from private land conservation, whilst stressing that this complements rather than replaces public conservation. In addition to the tax benefits, "it allows families and individuals to leave a perpetual heritage, a legacy". Meanwhile, land trusts obtain more protected land, and there are public benefits in terms of wildlife habitats, clean water and scenic vistas.
On top of that, private land conservation increases social capital: "It's viral, it's contagious, it spreads the will to be a conservationist." This is one of the keys to the movement's success, according to Mr Levitt. Others include the fact that it is voluntary and economically efficient. "It's much less expensive for a government or a land trust to buy an easement on a property than it is to buy the title to the property," he pointed out.
Private land conservation is a growing phenomenon. Mr Levitt estimates it is present in over 100 nations, in a variety of forms. "This is truly a global movement," he said, emerging around the world "at a similar time when we're faced with similar global challenges". Mr Levitt concluded that whilst this innovative approach may not be for everyone, "for those people who want to act as conservationists, it's a very attractive option".
The landowners' perspective.
Thierry de l'Escaille, CEO of the European Landowners Organisation (ELO), was positive at the prospect of more involvement in this area, whilst noting some hurdles. He explained, "There is a huge private sector that is ready [to manage land for conservation], but there is a problem of recognition." In some countries, private owners "do not feel welcome" and the only solution considered is that land be purchased for conservation, according to Mr de l'Escaille.
He believes it is possible to achieve a sustainable balance in terms of using land for economic, conservation and social purposes but said the different stakeholders must work together: "We need a more inclusive idea of nature conservation." Mr de l'Escaille found the US example of conservation easements was very interesting "because it shows that cooperation between the different sectors is possible". The ELO chief concluded, "We strongly believe this instrument of private conservation is a way to do better [...] and do it cheaper."