What are the benefits to the public when a private landowner chooses to conserve the environmental, cultural and historical, or recreational qualities of his or her land via a formal conservation plan or a conservation easement? And by carrying out its mission, why is the St. Lawrence Land Trust providing a public benefit?
In some cases the benefit to the public is direct, for example when a landowner provides a recreational easement that allows the public to use a walking trail that crosses the land-holding, or to fish a stream that flows through the property, or to land canoes on a riverside beach on the owner’s property.
Other benefits to the public are less obvious, but nevertheless are substantial. Landowners, by agreeing to conserve the environmental quality of their property, maintain or improve the quality of habitat for wildlife that the public harvests by hunting and fishing, and enjoys observing in the landscape. Private-land conservation preserves ‘ecosystem services’ that we all benefit from. Ecosystem services are benefits that nature can provide humans at seemingly no cost. Good environmental stewardship on private landholdings produce a healthier environment that the entire community benefits from: better water quality, better control of water availability (flood prevention, groundwater recharge), cleaner air, better conservation of soil fertility, healthier forests, and healthier, more abundant wildlife.
Another public benefit of private-land conservation is that historical, cultural, and beautiful environmental features in a landscape provide a community with a sense of history, heritage, and pride-of-place. While this benefit appears to be rather intangible, economists have shown that regions that conserve historical and cultural resources, and that have a beautiful and healthy environment have higher property values than those that don’t – people prefer to live and own property in landscapes that are rich in natural and human cultural resources. Moreover, tourists travel to areas that are environmentally beautiful and historically and culturally rich – businesses and the local economy benefit when private landowners conserve and steward the natural and cultural resources on their property.
Finally, it is worth considering the public benefit that is derived from providing private landowners rewards for taking measures that preserve the environmental, cultural, and historical features of their property. Conservation easements and some conservation actions provide tax benefits to landowners (see Conserving Your Property). Economists have shown that landowners who wisely steward their land are not adequately compensated for the many ecological services provided by their property. Providing fair compensation to landowners for the ecosystem services they provide will make it more likely that landowners will be able to afford to continue to own the property and provide adequate stewardship. The whole community benefits when property ownership is economically sustainable.