Carolina Halevy & Hans von Sonntag (also photos) | 13.06. 2023

Above: the ENPLC easement workshop occurred in Berlin at the NABU headquarters.

“A short-time loss in land value can be gained in a long-time brand value”, says Clare Cannon, a beef and merino wool-producing farmer from NSW, Australia, when she protected a third of her property with a private land conservation agreement in 2017.

Clare’s experience is an example that Phil Tabas (The Nature Conservancy) featured in his presentation on conservation easements in the US at the ENPLC easement workshop on 6 June 2023 in Berlin. With over 15,000 easements in place, they are a huge success story in his country. He identifies three drivers:

  • Love of nature
  • Tax incentives
  • Local NGOs that drum up their business

Shane Sparg (Birdlife International) identifies

  • ESG needs

as an additional driver in his presentation. Quarries, for instance, can be an excellent chance for habitat restoration, even creating something more diverse and unique. But how to keep that in the long term? Insetting the landowner’s carbon emissions and sharpening their ESG profile could be maintained through easements.

Shane Sparg states that openness to dedicate land to conversation not only depends on incentives or the opposite of it (CAP) but also on the size of the farm. The larger the farm, the more extensive the use, the easier it is to implement conservation easements.

In the same vein, many environment-conscious private landowners want to ensure that future generations will respect nature on certain lands they own. Anton Gazebeek quotes in his presentation the Chilean landowners John and Elena Whitelaw, who restored large swathes of lands destroyed by intensive sheep farming and asked this question precisely.

Anton Gazebeek, chair of the Eurosite Agriculture, Biodiversity and Climate working group (ABC), in discussion with Francesco Marcone and Stefano Picchi, both WWF Italy

So what are conservation easements? With a conservation easement, covenant or servitude, private landowners have a tool to ensure that their land will be protected for a long time, regardless of who owns the land in the future, as the protection rights run with the land. However, two parties are needed, the landowner and the easement holder, often a conservation NGO with a proven record for sustainable conversation work. The two parties sign a long-term contract for a specific swathe of land the landowner wants to see protected. That contract is the conservation easement. Often such conservation easements allow for special rights as they serve a greater good but also include certain obligations. In the US, that’s the ability to benefit from tax incentives, but the easement must be binding for a very long time, e.g. 100 years.

NABU president Jörg-Andreas Krüger greets the workshop participants and points out that fighting the climate and biodiversity crisis cannot be accomplished without private landowners.

Europe’s situation is different and diverse as most European countries have another law system, often historically based on Napoleon’s Code Civil with varying peculiarities. Vanessa Kurukgy from France (Fédération des Conservatoires d’espaces naturels) explained the French ORE easement (Obligation, Réelle, Environnementale). Like in the US or Australia, these easements need two partners, the land owner and an organisation responsible for the conservation work. They don’t entail tax deduction schemes but offer the option to be sold or implemented, serving ESG needs or compulsory offsetting.

From left to right. Stefano Picchi, Graeme Kerr, Arpo Kullerkupp, Tom Cabuy, Martina Martina Kišelov

Graeme Kerr (Natural England) points out that the UK’s conservation covenant can be applied to nature restoration and historic sites. However, the easement holder must ensure enough sustainable budget for the conservation work is available and that the process is painstakingly reviewed. This can be a considerable obstacle because NGOs and other conservation bodies are often under-financed.

But this is not the only obstacle. As Melina Addix (ENPLC, Eurosite) pointed out in her ENPLC case study presentation, building trust and having straight communication help the fear of uncertainty because the long running time of the easement contracts is a significant obstacle for many landowners.

Melina Addix presents her survey on the results of easement test cases implemented as part of the LIFE ENPLC project.

With all these problems in mind, Johanna Singer, a PhD student from Würzburg University researching conservation easements, asked the fair question in her presentation, do we need easements then? And if so, how do we deal with the underlying democratic and class problems that inevitably come when wealthy landowners can control it all? Perhaps public involvement is desirable? Will easements become a popular conservation tool in Europe without tax incentives, as landowners are reluctant?

Ann-Sophie Mulier, representing the European landowners (ELO), supported that sentiment in her presentation by identifying tax benefits for conservation expenses as the most sought-after demand of her clientele.

Renee Kivikko (above) and Philip Tabas (below) joined the workshop from the US at the crack of dawn online.

Renee Kivikko (Land Trust Alliance) closed the day by urging that nothing can be done in nature conservation without the communities. They must be informed and benign to the conservation easement in their area, expecting due diligence and storytelling that benefits their municipality. If done right, conservation easements may induce a short-time loss in land value but gain brand value in the long run, which communities and landowners could benefit from massively, as already proven many times in many places.

Just ask your local NGO.