Center for Conservation Incentives

Why Private Lands?

Natural resource conservation and restoration depend on farmers, ranchers and other private landowners

An NRCS range specialist assists a landowner in South Dakota with identifying grasses beneficial to good range management.  (Photo: Tim McCabe/USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)

An NRCS range specialist assists a landowner in South Dakota with identifying grasses beneficial to good range management. (Photo: Tim McCabe/USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)

Most landowners want what's best for their land. Using this common ground between environmentalists and landowners, Environmental Defense is partnering with farmers, ranchers, private forest landowners and other private landowners. We provide technical assistance, financial assistance, project coordination, and other assistance to help interested landowners manage their land to benefit rare wildlife, water quality, air quality, and other important resources while continuing to keep the land in production.

Though the concept is simple, we are breaking new ground. Cooperation and collaboration between environmentalists and farmers and ranchers is still not the norm unfortunately. Not long ago, most agricultural conservation relied on retiring land from agriculture, and restoring rare species and their habitats focused on public lands such as parks, forests and wildlife refuges. And landowners saw a lot more sticks (regulations and lawsuits) than they did carrots (incentives). Today, two key realizations guide our efforts:

  • With nearly three-fourths of the lower 48 states privately owned, tackling the nation’s most pressing conservation challenges requires active involvement by farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners. There are myriad things landowners can do to improve and protect water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and open space. For example, landowners can implement prescribed burns to restore endangered woodpecker habitat. Dairy farmers can graze their animals in ways that create open wet meadow habitat needed by threatened bog turtles. And crop farmers can plant riparian buffers and implement precision agriculture practices to reduce runoff of nutrients into rivers and streams.

  • The best means of advancing conservation on private lands is through voluntary efforts – incentives and other kinds of assistance to farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners for implementing and maintaining conservation measures. To save our natural resources, we need to focus on private property, and voluntary efforts by private landowners are essential. Incentives can accomplish what laws and regulations cannot.

Private Lands Key to Conservation

percentage of private land

A map showing how public and private lands are divvied up in the U.S. makes clear the importance of private land.  Except in a handful of western states where public land is heavily concentrated, nearly all land is privately owned.  For example, more than 90% of Texas, Illinois and Iowa is private land; more than 75% of the species-rich southeastern and Mississippi Delta states belongs to private landowners; and well over 50% of biologically-diverse Hawaii and Florida is in private ownership. Large portions of some ecosystems, like the imperiled longleaf pine forests of the Southeast, are primarily on private land.  And privately owned lands determine the water quality of most people around the nation.

Only about 6% of private land is developed, while the vast majority -- about 88% -- is working lands: cropland, rangeland, pasture or forest.  There aren't enough pots of money or willing sellers to meet conservation goals by simply purchasing land, and maintaining a vital agricultural economy and social fabric is of great importance to the nation.  So to restore protect and enhance water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, vital wetlands and to recover plants and animals on the brink of extinction, we need the help of willing landowners.

Finding the Right Financial Tools

Though most landowners care about natural resources, they also need to make a living.  Many lack the money, time or technical resources needed to practice the land management that benefits water quality, air quality, rare species and other natural resources. Although these landowners may be willing partners in restoring habitat, improving the water quality and other conservation actions, they can't do it without assistance.
Fortunately, more help is available to landowners than ever before.  A wide array of federal, state and private programs offer financial and technical assistance and regulatory assurances to landowners who volunteer to implement conservation actions.  Programs and policies offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior and other agencies and organizations are available to landowners. The Interior Department offers programs with financial assistance for private landowners and initiatives that provide regulatory assurances. Both Safe Harbor agreements and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances give a landowner legal assurances that they will not be burdened with new Endangered Species Act regulations if their good deeds on behalf of a rare plant or animal bring more of that species to the land. (Check out our Farm Conservation Toolkit to learn more about these and other tools.)

Success Stories

We are only just beginning to realize the potential for private lands to make a difference, but already landowners are making a significant difference. Here are just a few examples:

  • In the Southeast, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker continued decline, despite decades of Endangered Species Act protection. Beginning in 1995 in North Carolina, landowners volunteered to manage their longleaf forestlands to benefit the woodpecker. Today, these foresters in seven states have enrolled over 600,000 acres in Safe Harbor agreements, and woodpecker family groups have increased by at least 10 percent on these lands.

  • Across the nation, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has provided significant incentives and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers improve and protect water quality, wetlands, water quantity, soil health, and much more. From 1997-2004, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program provided more than $58 million to producers to reduce soil erosion and improve sediment control, more than $44 million to help grazers improve forage health and protect water quality, and more than $68 million to help producers improve their management of manure and litter, and that is just a few of the benefits of the program. NRCS also helped landowners restore and protect more than 1.6 million acres of wetlands by 2005, with another 154,500 acres of wetlands restored in 2005.

  • When Great Plains cropland acreage rose in the 1970s and early 1980s, duck populations plummeted as valuable prairie pothole habitat disappeared. The wetlands known as "the nation's duck factory" were going out of business until the Conservation Reserve Program came along. Farmers and ranchers who volunteered to remove marginal lands from production received cost-share assistance, and the ducks got new habitat. Twenty years later, duck numbers are up by more than 3 million, and the entire country benefits.

  • With help from several incentives programs, Arizona rancher Jim Crosswhite has restored degraded pasturelands, transformed a stream once rated non-functional to a state benchmark for water quality. Meanwhile, environmental improvements are paying off economically, and his ranch is more profitable.

  • In the Southwest the northern aplomado falcon had nearly vanished from the U.S. After 1952, the once-common raptor no longer nested in the U.S. and was only rarely spotted there. Under Safe Harbor Agreements, Texas ranchers welcomed the endangered bird onto their lands. Today, nearly 40 pairs nest in the state, most of them on Safe Harbor lands. Without help from these landowners, one of our most beautiful birds might be but a memory for Americans.

A toolbox of good conservation programs is an important beginning for securing America's natural heritage, but that toolbox needs to reach willing landowners. That is why Environmental Defense is active on the policy front as well as on-the-ground projects. It's essential to ensure that these programs are well funded, that outreach is sufficient to help landowners find the incentives programs that meet their needs, and that programs are targeted to spend their funding wisely in order to accomplish the maximum conservation bang for their buck. At present, many landowners are unaware they are eligible for conservation funding or technical assistance, and too many others are turned away when landowner applications outstrip the available funding.  We aim to change that. Only when conservation incentive programs reach all interested parties will we be meeting the challenge and opportunity of conservation on private land.

Posted: 04-May-2006; Updated: 29-Jul-2007

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