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Conservation Tools

From Highlights from A Conservation Blueprint

Buying land isn’t the only way to protect it. The Conservation Blueprint recommends that acquisition not be the dominant form of land protection. We believe there are other tools that can provide protection and conservation benefits at substantially lower costs.

Tools for ConservationPast land protection activities in Santa Cruz County have focused on policy and purchase – and have achieved impressive results. Growth control and zoning have limited and directed development, sparing the county from the sprawl that characterizes so much development in the state. An impressive array of state, county, and city parks and lands provides residents and visitors with a wide range of recreational opportunities, while also protecting habitat and watersheds. These publicly owned lands now make up 27% of the county – well over double the amount of land that is built up and three times the amount of cultivated farmland.

The Blueprint recommends that the majority of future land protection efforts focus on tools that leave lands on the tax rolls and that continue to provide valuable products like food and wood. We also believe that conservation goals can be achieved on more land at less cost through the use of non-acquisition tools like conservation easements and stewardship incentives.

Conservation Easements
Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and a conservation organization or public agency, that typically place permanent limits on the use of the land in order to protect its conservation values. Private landowners retain ownership and the property remains on the tax rolls. Easements are appropriate tools when the land need not be taken out of private ownership to achieve conservation goals. Easements can be purchased from landowners or they can be donated, in which case they may qualify for a tax deduction. A combination of sale and donation is also possible. The best local examples of these easements are those between the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and Pajaro Valley landowners, which permanently restrict the development of farmland.

Stewardship Incentives
Stewardship incentives include an array of current and emerging tools that compensate landowners for managing their lands in a way that increases conservation values beyond what is required by existing regulations. The Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County administer numerous voluntary incentive programs to protect, restore, and manage land in order to improve soil, water quality, and wildlife habitat.

Payments for Ecosytsem ServicesAn emerging tool is Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), which provides financial incentives to landowners in exchange for managing land in a way that protects one or more ecological values or services. Innovative examples of such approaches include New York City’s payments to private landowners in the watersheds of the Catskill Mountains to improve farm management to maintain water quality. The City spent $1.5 billion on these payments, instead of $6-8 billion for a new water treatment plant.

The Conservation Blueprint recommends that an economic valuation of the County’s ecosystem services be completed and that pilot projects be undertaken with resource agencies, conservation organizations, and owners of working lands. The Blueprint recommends, if these tools are proven to be effective, that a substantial portion of the 50,000 acres of priority multi-benefit lands be protected through their use.


More about the Conservation Blueprint