A landowner and members of a conservation organization tour a property protected by a conservation easement in southwestern Wisconsin.
Photo by Emilee Martell, 2022.

By Adena Rissman, Alex Kazer, Catie DeMets, and Emilee Martell.

Read the full paper here.

Private individuals and firms hold many lands important for nature conservation and agriculture. One important question is how to sustain conservation policies and programs on private lands even when lands change hands. Conservation easements, like conservation covenants, are legal agreements that formalize conservation goals and can restrict housing, mining, and other land uses that conflict with these conservation goals. While conservation easements are usually designed to last forever, landowners will change when people sell or pass on lands with conservation easements. The new landowner is subject to the agreement and needs to understand its rules and hopefully become a steward of its conservation goals. Conservation organizations that hold conservation easements, including governments and nonprofit land trusts, play important roles in onboarding new landowners into the conservation easement. Our research demonstrates that trust, shared goals, meaning-making, and power are important in the social relationships of nature conservation on private lands subject to conservation easements.

These themes emerged from interviews we conducted with conservation professionals and landowners with conservation easements on their land. To better understand social practices, relationships, and perspectives on conservation easements, we interviewed 10 national land conservation experts in the United States, 11 staff members from government agencies and land trusts who hold conservation easements in Wisconsin, and 17 landowners who bought or inherited land with a conservation easement in Wisconsin. We then identified important themes and practices that seemed to improve relationships between conservation professionals and successor landowners.

We found that trust grew from clear and consistent communication about roles, assisting landowners by providing knowledge, skills, or access to resources, and by inspiring landowners with meaningful stories to become stewards and partners. Shared goals helped the conservation easement feel more like a partnership than a policing relationship. Landowners expressed that personal relations with staff helped them feel more comfortable with potentially off-putting legal language. When conservation organizations were able to pass on meaningful land histories to new landowners, some new landowners felt they were serving as flame-keepers for stories of the land, which helped them connect with a sense of place. We heard conservation professionals and landowners each express a view that the other held greater power, with both leery of expensive legal action. Cultivating positive relationships requires personal, financial, and administrative capacity to engage individuals in achieving societal conservation goals. We found that prioritizing face-to-face connections and proactive planning for staff succession through digital record-keeping may enhance practices of relationship building.

Organization-landowner relationships can sustain important public investments in protected areas with private rights-holders to provide an array of societal benefits. Renewing this work with each subsequent generation will require creativity, commitment, and investment.