Land Conservation Methods - A Complete Guide  | RenewMethod

Land Conservation Methods offer a holistic guide to walk you through best practices and most common approaches when navigating your land conservation initiative. 

You’ll need to understand the methods of land conservation which include the overarching legalities and tax benefits, differentiating between a conservation easement and land trust, identifying your purpose and plan, as well as the on-the-ground practices for land and energy management.

Whether you choose to preserve, manage, or support in the restoration of land. Learning about approaches to soil conservation, animal management, wildlife preservation, watershed management, and renewable energy will be of benefit for the journey. And that’s exactly what we’ll cover.

We’ve gathered information from leading organizations, spoke with experts in the field and those who have already walked the path to ensure you have the best and most thorough guide out there. This work can be daunting and a multi-decade task, so let’s begin.

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Getting Started with Land Conservation

So you’ve made the decision to purchase land, and you’d like it to be in the form of a land conservation. Kudos to you! You’re already ahead of the game.

When you’re working with land conservation, you’re adding value to the community and ecology, as well as to your pocket. There are significant tax benefits when either purchasing, selling or converting land in this form.

The main terms you’ll want to keep an eye out for are:

Land Trusts and Conservation Easements  

Both are legally binding forms of preserving land for a particular use of public and/or ecological good. It is a way for the owner to maintain control of and manage what is happening with the land; simply within particular guidelines that prevent future industrial or business development. The same will go for future owners who either purchase or inherit the land. In short, it’s a way of protecting particular aspects of natural and/or communal life within the boundaries of the land for future generations.

Land Trusts 

Land Trusts are typically the overarching alliances which help support the intention of the established conservation. They are teams of non-profit organizations and volunteers which regularly monitor activities of the land to ensure the terms of the conservation agreement are met, even as the ownership changes hands.

The Land Trust Alliance is a helpful resource and network that can offer tangible support throughout this process.

Conservation Easements

A Conservation Easement is a legally binding agreement itself where the current owner would identify the priorities for protection and preservation, for both now and the foreseeable future. This can include wildlife habitat preservation, reforestation, reintroduction of native species, sustainable farmland practices, working farms, regenerative livestock management, watershed management, preserved access for human to nature interaction, scenic areas, recreation, and the list goes on.

When land is converted to or purchased in this form, the terms and parameters are pre-established and etched in time. These pre-identified needs are very particular to the bioregion and will be upheld legally for the indefinite future. It’s very important to have an in-depth understanding of the history of the land and community to be able to determine how to best utilize it moving forward.

Questions to Ask

Here are some additional questions you would want to ask before engaging in land conservation.

  • What climate zone are we a part of?
  • What types of land degradation have taken place on this land?
  • What is the primary workforce in the area?
  • What are the main natural resources in the area?
  • Do I have a complete understanding of the history of the land?
  • What are the greater developmental plans of this region?
  • Who are the major players?
  • What role does this land conservation have within the bigger picture?
  • Current trends?
  • How much management do I want to partake in?
  • How much do I want to leave for natural growth and wildlife?
  • Does the land need to be fiscally productive to stay to be maintained?
  • Can I secure long-term funding?
  • What resources do I need to make this possible?
  • What do I care about protecting?
  • What are the needs of the local community?
  • What assets does the land already have?
  • What are some challenges in meeting our goals with land conservation?

Also, https://www.findalandtrust.org/ has a remarkably engaging interactive map of all the land trusts and conservation initiatives in the United States. It’s a great place to begin the search, see what sort of initiatives are already out there, connect with potential partners, and perhaps find a land conservation to care for yourself.

Tax Benefits

Aside from the philanthropic reasons why someone would engage in this kind of work, there are a number of tax incentives that make this even more appealing.  

If a land-owner has kin, and wants to ensure it is passed down without being subdivided or at risk from any corporate monger, they can put their land into a trust or conservation easement to ensure it is passed through their bloodline. This would mean estate taxes would be waived, which is a primary reason inheritors are forced to parcel the land and sell it; to be able to pay off these debts. In this case, all generations moving forth are secured within the land if they choose to agree to the requirements of maintaining and preserving their familial legacy.

Land conservation easements can be seen as a charitable deduction on federal tax returns if there is proof it is for public good,  even when privately owned. There can also be property and income tax benefits. It will vary depending on the scenario so it would be best to connect both with your local Land Trust Alliance as well as with a qualified and informed tax preparer.

Transforming and Working with the Land

Now that you are established with the land, we can get to the fun part. What to do with it?!

I can’t emphasize enough -- what you decide to do with this land is going to be painstakingly unique to your environment, as well as your individual priorities and desires for protection and preservation. This is the part where your hidden hippie side gets to show itself, and you embark on a journey of co-creation with your land.

Permaculture as a form of Land Management

According to Bill Mollison, World Leader in Permaculture Design and founder of the Permaculture Institute, the first thing you will want to do when working with your land is to spend time simply observing the natural landscape. Noticing the curvatures of the land, what already exists, is there any erosion, where is water flowing, what kinds of trees, vegetation, birds already live there, where does the sun path fall, etc. These sorts of inquiries will help you better identify the needs of the landscape.

Permaculture design blends indigenous knowledge with modern science for the purpose of  regenerative and sustainable landscapes. This often highlights the importance of diversity within modern day agricultural practices. A complete understanding of the basic principles of Mollison’s  work as well as more in-depth techniques can be found in his book ‘Permaculture: A Designers Manual.’

How to become eligible for a Land Trust or Conservation Easement

To be eligible for a land trust or conservation easement, you’ll need to have a focus in either one, all three, or any combination in these three main categories: Preservation, Management, and Restoration.

Preservation 

Preservation is about making sure native species, wildlife, waterways, and space are able to have space to exist and thrive without any threat. It ensures the existence of life in a particular place indefinitely.

Management 

Management is where those involved in conservation efforts play a role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem within the perimeters of the land. They also ensure spaces are well maintained and accessible for public use; areas where there are facilities and trails would be a good example of this. As would be working farmers who play a primary role in the land’s usage.  

Restoration 

Restoration efforts are to bring life back to a particular area by restoring the land to its optimum health prior to degradation. This includes waterways, reintroducing native species, reforesting, bringing back top soil through regenerative agricultural practices.

Within these efforts, educational or open spaces for recreation can be a part of this as well.

Sustainability of Natural Resources

Sustainability is often defined as the ability to ‘sustain life for future generations.’

Land conservation is an ideal example of Sustainability, as Preservation, Management and/or Restoration of open, natural spaces will be directly focused on sustaining the Earth’s natural resources, and our human ability to mitigate and care for these spaces that also nourish us.

Though there might be a focus or a priority on one particular aspect of conservation, especially in regards to your region. It’s good to keep in mind the indirect impacts it might have.

For example, reforestation with the intention of improving soil quality and increasing top layer soil will also have a simultaneous positive impact on stabilizing clean water systems within that area, as well as providing more habitat for birds and wildlife to exist. The same works in the opposite direction. If a project includes introducing livestock onto land, the runoff going into the water source will inevitably change the water’s pH level from the fecal matter and put stress on (and even negatively impact) the plant and aquatic life.

Sustainable and Regenerative farming methods do their best to mitigate these harmful, indirect effects by utilizing a number of methods that will lessen negative impacts, and ideally, support new life.

This being said, when working with land conservation it’s important to keep in mind how each action can have either negative and/or positive effects in another area of our work. Gathering as much information as possible, and connecting with other land conservationists, ecologists, farmers, sustainability specialists, etc., who may have more experience, will be your greatest asset along the way.

The natural resources that you will be impacting most are:

  • Soil  ❃  
  • Water Systems  ☂
  • Air Quality  🝔
  • Natural Habitat/ Wildlife ☉
  • Human Community ☀

Most Common Land Conservation Practices  

Along with the natural resources they are directly affecting *see key above*

  • Contour Farming 

Contour Farming is more common in agricultural conservation practices, yet the basic principles can be widely applied to prevent soil degradation. Contour farming encourages crops to be planted in rows that contour the land’s natural curvatures. If the land is hilly or on a slope, this will create a tiered or terracing effect. The rain water runoff will then be directed from level to level, slowly flowing and watering each row of crops while minimizing soil erosion. The United States Department of Agriculture indicates that contour farming can reduce soil erosion by up to 50%.

        ❃  ☂

  • Mulching 

Mulching is a vital aspect of both suppressing growth of weeds while enhancing organic matter within the soil. Organic matter increases biodiversity within the soil and also retains water allowing it to penetrate completely into the ground, nourishing both the root systems and plant life. Biodiversity on the land and within the soil is equally important. It enhances an ecosystem's resilience by ensuring there are diversified nutrients and microorganisms. Healthy soil creates healthy life, more vitamins and nutrients within the foods themselves and allows all vegetation to thrive, and thus be more viable and nutritious for human consumption. It also allows the possibility to put more carbon back into the soil, a vital element in combating the green-house effect.

         ❃  ☂ 🝔 ☀

 

  • No-Till  

No-Till farming methods are becoming more and more popular as a form of soil conservation, as opposed to the more common large-scale tilling methods which predominated during the rise of industrial agriculture. It was thought that breaking up the soil and tilling in fertilizer would be more effective for crop viability. Studies now show that tilling soil can in fact reduce and negatively impact the soil’s microbiology by reducing the absorption of water, causing soil erosion, and leaves the soil barren and dry. No-till methods advocate for direct seeding with heavy mulching.

          ❃  ☂ 🝔 ☉

  • Rotational Planting and Cover Cropping

Rotation Planting and Cover Cropping makes sure that the soil is never left barren and plants are being alternated strategically to ensure optimum soil health. Rotational planting will balance out above ground crops with below ground crops throughout the year. This creates balance within the soil life as well, as some crops will either pull out  and/or add various combinations of nutrients such as the primary (NPK) nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as the secondary calcium, magnesium and sulphur.

          ❃  🝔 ☀

  • Rotational Grazing and Animal Management

Rotational Grazing and Animal Management is helpful for those looking to have land conservation in the form of a ranch. This can be for the purposes of cattle, horses, alpaca, buffalo, or any other livestock you have interest in. Rotational grazing prevents overgrazing from occurring and also puts carbon back into the soil by fertilizing grasses and aerating the soil. Depending on the amount of acreage available, the land would be subdivided into paddocks and the livestock would rotate paddock every couple of days.

           ❃  🝔

  • Reforestation

Reforestation is probably the most vital aspect of long term conservation of soil, land and overall ecosystem. Reforestation has the benefit of creating spaces of natural habitat for a whole host of species, other plantlife, birds, mammals, mosses, etc. It gives an opportunity for understorying which protects and nourishes all of the life below; it prevents soil erosion and actually adds layers of top soil over time, as well as stabilizing the climate and weather patterns. Make sure to reforest responsibly keeping in mind native, endangered and invasive species in your area.

           ❃  ☂ 🝔 ☉ ☀

  • Watershed Management  

Watershed Management is the process of ensuring that waterways that pass through your land are able to leave the water cleaner than it was found. It is also the sustainable distribution of this water while it resides on your premises. This includes maintaining the habitats around and within the lakes, streams, rivers, water basins, ponds, oceanic properties, etc.

Watersheds are areas of land where water flows from rain or snow from mountains and hilltops down through creeks and rivers, eventually into reservoirs, lakes, bays and back into the ocean. Your job will be to ensure there is proper irrigation of the lands, dam management, minimal chemical input, and well flowing waterways that support life for plants, humans, wildlife, vegetation and beyond. This requires an awareness of where your water is coming from before it arrives on your land, and where it is going thereafter.

According to UNICEF, 2.2 million people from around the world lack clean drink water systems in their local area. Recent ‘Water is Life’ Campaigns draw attention to the urgency of proper watershed management. You’ll need to be in connection with neighboring lands who share this waterway to have a complete picture of how to support in the water restoration aspect of your project.

            ❃  ☂ ☉

RENEWABLE ENERGY

Another sector you may consider integrating into your land conservation plan is renewable energy . The following energy cultivation methods are ways to provide cleaner energy as well as provide alternative sources of income.

Solar

There are multiple ways of harnessing solar energy.

  • Photovoltaics (PV) - turn light from the sun directly into electricity
  • Concentrated solar-thermal power (CSP) - utilizes concentrated heat from the sun to drive utility scale electric turbines - this is typically in larger scale production.
  • Solar Heating and Cooling Systems (SHC) - Collect Thermal Energy to provide hot water and air heating or conditioning

Pros: Provide cleaner energy and are cost effective. Can reserve energy for future benefit. Can transfer energy credits for the local community.

Cons: Hard on the environment during the production cycle. Long term maintenance can be costly. Seasonal and weather related limitations as far as sustained energy usage year round.

Wind

  • Horizontal Axis Wind Turbines - the most common that you will see, with a rotational axis that runs horizontal to the ground. This has the common propeller that you would also see one airplanes.
  • Vertical Axis Wind Turbines - Rotational axis runs perpendicular to the ground. Best for inconsistent weather conditions, as it has operational functioning of 360 degrees, even at times running north/south.

They can be in the forms of:

  • Utility Scale Wind
  • Off-Shore Wind
  • Distributed or ‘Small’ Wind

Pros: Clean energy. Easy and inexpensive to run.

Cons: Can have a negative impact on bird migratory patterns. Can be excessively noisy. Costly to install.

Water

  • Hydro Electric Dam
  • Wave Power
  • Tidal Power

Pros: Clean and inexpensive to run. Can bring significant energy once running. Most consistent and reliable throughout the year then other renewable energy methods.

Cons: Can significantly disturb underwater wildlife. Hydroelectric power will be unavailable in the case of drought. Installation is costly.

Communal and Recreational Benefits

The final major component of A Complete Guide to Land Conservation Methods is the element of communal and recreational benefit to the community. Often times, land conservations provide the benefit of providing open, natural spaces for education and recreation for the greater good of the community.

This would include walking and hiking trails, centers for rafting or kayaking, community and educational gardens, bird and butterfly (open pollinator) sanctuaries with beautiful spaces for public enjoyment, open rec and camping areas, public parks, etc.

This is another example of how preserving and restoring particular areas would have a both direct and indirect benefit for the local community, by providing spaces for connection with loved ones, as well as nature, also enhancing the health and wellbeing of those who visit or participate.

Supporting Land Conservation Efforts

You may not be able to directly own or manage a land conservation at this time, but you can certainly still participate. A majority of land conservation and land trust organizations operate predominantly on a volunteer and donation basis. The Nature Conservancy being the most widely nationwide initiative to conserve and preserve natural spaces.

There are local and statewide initiatives happening across the country. Why not consider spending this summer getting familiar with your nearby land conservation for a visit and/or as a volunteer. You’ll be surprised how much you will learn about your local ecology from this experience.

Another option would be to donate your land directly to a nature conservancy. It could either provide immediate tax benefit for you and your family, or it could be donated at will - meaning it will be the land conservation or trust that will be the inheritor of your land once deceased.

Regardless of what you choose, we hope this article was helpful in your endeavors to preserve, protect and restore our beautiful environments and open spaces in the United States for now and generations to come.

About THE AUTHOR

James Parker

James Parker

James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.

Read More About James Parker