Property Rights Acquisition and Ecosystem Service Protection
A variety of mechanisms are employed by governments and other actors to constrain development or activities on private parcels of land for the purpose of increasing ecosystem services. These include easement programs, lease programs, incentive programs, tax reduction programs, cost-share programs, or ultimately fee-simple acquisition with some kind of management or stewardship tenant.
Elements of Protection Programs
- Protection Mechanism - different programs typically specialize in a limited number of protection mechanisms and incentives such as: easements, leases, incentive payments, cost-share, tax reduction, or acquisition and lease-back.
- Program Intent - Programs typically aim to achieve limited purposes and are supported by special interest groups, such as programs for salmon restoration, water quality protection, or farmland protection.
- Implementation Cycle - Program implementation often follows an Government appropriation cycle, and may have a time lag between selection of an action and implementation.
- Prioritization Methods - Programs may use different application cycles, or formulaic or peer review systems to pick among opportunities.
Limitations of Existing Systems
The following limitations of existing acquisition systems have been identified through interviews:
- Local Acquisition Seed Money - Local and consistent revenue sources can fit local needs, and increase the ability to leverage state and federal funds. The absence of local seed money can weaken a region.
- Stewardship - Funding sources rarely support long term stewardship and accountability systems.
- Speed - The time required to move from interested property owner, to acquisition, is slow in many programs. The time period from appraisal and offer, to purchase would ideally be three months.
- Selective Funding & Rigid Policies - Many programs only pay for some parts of the overall acquisition process, and may have rigid policies that undermine a transaction.
- Budget Fluctuation - Agency programs depend on appropriations which fluctuate wildly and prevent forward planning, disabling time sensitive acquisition. Funding sources based on dedicated taxation, such as Conservation Futures may be more reliable.
- Revolving Fund Risks - using loans to acquire and hold property to accelerate acquisition has risks, as the acquisition program may base funding awards not on the price originally paid, but on the appraisal at the time of award. Waivers of Retroactivity are used by RCO to reduce this risk, but this does not apply to outside financiers.
Potential Improvements to the System
The following ideas for improving acquisition systems were developed through conversations to date:
- Local Revenue Sources - Local funds may be more flexible and efficient than state-wide or national programs, and improve local actors' ability to leverage those sources. Conservation Futures is a county program mandated by state law that is commonly used to generate local revenue.
- Uniform Applications - Developing applications for different grant programs, each with slightly different application criteria and format, creates a drain on project management resources. Variation in program landowner agreements or criteria can result in lots of back-and-forth between the land trust and the applicant that drains relationship capital, potentially undermining the acquisition. Acquisition programs with more stringent criteria or detailed application structures exacerbate this problem.
- Competitive Bid Systems - After developing an annual revenue flow, allow for landowners to make an sealed bid to sell development rights. The program will expend funds purchasing the most cost effective offers.
State and State/Federal Mixed:
- NEP Conservation Easement Program
- Water quality funding - unclear
- Floodplains by Design
- NEP Habitat Strategic Initiative
- Endangered Species Act
Other incentive programs can provide value to land owners as part of an overall public interest engagement. EQIP programs can preferentially support agricultural operators with a robust conservation strategy.