Conservation Incentives in America’s Heartland

James N. Levitt, Outubro 1, 2006

The Mississippi River watershed has, since the administration of Thomas Jefferson, played a central role in American life. This centrality has been both literal, in a geographic sense, and figurative, in the sense that the mighty river runs through America’s agricultural and cultural heartland.

One of the nation’s greatest conservationists, Aldo Leopold, grew up along the banks of the Mississippi, in Burlington, Iowa. After gaining a forestry degree at Yale University and serving in the U.S. Forest Service in the desert Southwest, Leopold returned to the upper Midwest to teach and write his most enduring prose at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Leopold and his family also devoted themselves to the restoration of a farm and forest landscape that included a ramshackle home, affectionately known as “the Shack,” on the sandy soils adjacent to the Wisconsin River, a tributary of the Mississippi.

In his work at both the university and the Shack, Leopold gained a first-hand view of the enormous challenges Americans face in attempting to conserve the nation’s soil, water, wildlife, and landscape. As the instigator of the first “wilderness” designation of a federally owned landscape in the Gila National Forest in Arizona, and as a founder of the Wilderness Society, Leopold was a prominent proponent of conservation on public lands. Still, he understood that unless private lands were also conserved for the long term, the conservation community would not be able to effectively protect America’s natural heritage. He wrote presciently for The Journal of Forestry in 1934:

Let me be clear that I do not challenge the purchase of public lands for conservation. For the first time in history we are buying on a scale commensurate with the size of the problem. I do challenge the assumption that bigger buying is a substitute for private conservation practice … . Bigger buying, I fear, is serving as an escape-mechanism—it masks our failure to solve the harder problem. The geographic cards are stacked against its ultimate success. In the long run, it is exactly as effective as buying half an umbrella … . The thing to be prevented is destructive private land use of any and all kinds. The thing to be encouraged is the use of private land in such a way as to combine the public and private interest to the greatest degree possible … . This paper forecasts that conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest. It asserts the new premise that if he fails to do so, his neighbors must ultimately pay the bill. It pleads that our jurists and economists anticipate the need for workable vehicles to carry that reward. (Leopold 1991)

More than seven decades after Leopold penned those words, American jurists, economists, policy makers, public natural resource agency administrators, nonprofit conservation leaders, and concerned citizens are still working on his challenge. In October 2005 the Lincoln Institute convened more than 30 conservation leaders to consider the most effective ways to design and use such “workable vehicles.” The Johnson Foundation cohosted the conference at its Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin.

From that base the participants visited several sites in the Upper Mississippi watershed in south-central Wisconsin that showcase impressive public-private conservation efforts. Brent Haglund and Alex Echols of the Sand County Foundation led the group to an expansive site on the Portage River managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where participants learned how cooperative public-private land management practices effectively enhanced wildlife habitat and helped restore native ecosystem functions. At the nearby Baraboo River we saw a public-private effort that had restored the river to health through the removal of several aged dams.

For historical perspective, the group visited the site of Leopold’s Shack, where we read from his posthumously published volume, A Sand County Almanac. Leopold (1949) lyrically describes the critical role of private stewardship in maintaining the long-term value of the region’s ecosystems. The participants also visited the campus of the International Crane Foundation (ICF), where we stood face-to-face with several of the world’s rarest birds and learned of cofounder George Archibald’s nonprofit efforts to restore their populations.

Over the next two days at Wingspread, the group discussed ways to enhance a broad array of conservation incentives in an economically efficient, measurably effective, and reasonably equitable manner. The participants focused on three types of incentive programs of interest to the conservation community in the early twenty-first century: tax incentives, market-based incentives, and fiscal (or budgetary) incentives.

Tax Incentives

Jean Hocker, president emeritus of the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), explained how the federal tax incentives associated with the donation of conservation easements, codified in the 1970s and 1980s, have become a key driver of growth in the U.S. land trust movement. Jeff Pidot, chief of the Natural Resources section of the Maine Attorney General’s office, and a 2004–2005 visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute, followed Hocker with a critique of easement policy and practice, explaining how the use of conservation easements has resulted in a variety of unintended consequences. He argued that reform of easement law and regulation at the state and national levels would both reduce misuse of the tool and improve its effectiveness in achieving conservation purposes (Pidot 2005).

Responding to Pidot’s critique, the participants, led by Mark Ackelson of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, considered a number of potential reforms, paying special attention to opportunities for strong voluntary standards, improved training and accreditation programs, stronger enforcement of existing regulations, and revision of appraisal standards. Several of these reforms have since been implemented, including LTA’s establishment of a voluntary accreditation program.

In response to persistent advocacy by the conservation community, the U.S. Congress in August 2006 approved an expansion of conservation easement tax benefits. In the opinion of James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the new provisions provide “substantial new incentives to landowners who want to commit their land to open space while keeping our nation’s working farms and ranches working” (The Chattanoogan 2006).

Market-based Incentives

Adam Davis, a California-based expert on ecosystem services, explained how private interests, in the context of public cap-and-trade regulatory structures, were becoming increasingly active in providing public and private goods, by employing new ecosystem service trading mechanisms for land and biodiversity conservation (Davis 2005). He noted that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulations for the mitigation of adverse impacts to wetlands were evolving to require all mitigators to meet measurable, relatively efficient performance standards. Such developments, he reported, would allow commercial wetlands banking firms to compete effectively and efficiently, improving the per-unit cost and quality of mitigation banking initiatives over time.

Davis’s remarks were expanded upon by several speakers, including Fred Danforth, who offered a case study of his own entrepreneurial experience in ecosystem service provision on a ranch in Montana’s Blackfoot River valley; George Kelly of Environmental Bank & Exchange (EBX) and Wiley Barbour of Environmental Resources Trust, who offered insights on the importance of clear norms and standards in ecosystem service markets; and Leonard Shabman, resident scholar at Resources for the Future and a widely respected economist, who has published several papers on the future of mitigation banking.

Recent events offer considerable hope that some of the legal and regulatory reforms discussed at the session will be implemented in the near future. Specifically, in the spring of 2006 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published new draft regulations that appear to address many of the concerns raised about wetlands mitigation. As reported by Ecosystem Marketplace (2006), “central to the proposed new regulations is the requirement that all forms of mitigation meet the same environmental standards already required of mitigation banks … . The proposed regulations will raise accountability levels for projects funded by in-lieu fee payments and will implement a more timely approval process for mitigation banks.”

Fiscal Incentives

The third type of incentive is generally funded through governmental budgets. Ralph Grossi of the American Farmland Trust; Craig Cox of the Soil and Water Conservation Society; Roger Claassen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Jeff Zinn of the Congressional Research Service offered a variety of perspectives on the complex negotiations associated with reauthorization of the Farm Bill, which offers opportunities to expand and change federal farm programs in 2007.

Whether or not the next Farm Bill provides for growth or shifts in incentive programs, achieving measurable impacts will depend on skillful program implementation. Jeff Vonk, director of Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources, offered detailed insight into the challenges of using a conservation budget to address agricultural water quality problems. He argued persuasively that even if conservation budgets increase over time, they will not achieve their intended effect without careful resource allocation analysis and follow-through.

Howard Learner, director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, offered a detailed case of how a federally funded agricultural renewable energy program benefited from focused legislative design and follow-through on implementation. Andrew Bowman of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation added the idea that, if implemented in a well-coordinated fashion, the State Wildlife Action Plans submitted to the federal government by the 50 states offered another important opportunity to make progress in wildlife and habitat conservation.

Help for the Mississippi River Watershed

Recent progress in strengthening U.S. tax and market-based incentives for land and biodiversity conservation, combined with potentially significant fiscal incentives, could provide an historic opportunity to realize ambitious conservation objectives in the next decade. There are many thorny conservation challenges that might be addressed with such incentives.

One of most urgent is associated with the Mississippi River watershed where Aldo Leopold spent much of his life. Stretching from Montana to Pennsylvania to Louisiana, the watershed picks up an enormous load of phosphorus and nitrogen from farms, parking lots, and lawns. These chemicals and other pollutants are carried by the great river into the Gulf of Mexico, where they are instrumental in creating hypoxia—an ecological condition characterized by a shortage of available oxygen. It can be caused by surplus amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that feed huge, oxygen-consuming algal blooms on the ocean’s surface. As the blooms grow rapidly, deeper ocean waters may become relatively depleted of oxygen, sometimes resulting in the death of massive numbers of fish.

A combination of innovative tax, market-based, and fiscal incentives could make a significant impact in improving the ecological character of the watershed and reducing hypoxia in the Gulf. For example, incentives targeted to encourage stream bank restoration, the establishment and stewardship of buffer strips, the implementation of crop rotation schemes that reduce fertilizer runoff, and the reduction of impervious surfaces near watercourses could, after sufficient trial and error, prove to be efficient, measurably effective, and reasonably equitable across geographic and socioeconomic lines. If implemented across the Mississippi watershed, such tools would benefit marine and bird populations, as well as the Gulf fishing industry and local economies. Aldo Leopold would likely applaud news of such an effort’s success, seeing private landowners rewarded to conserve the public interest.

James N. Levitt is director of the Program on Conservation Innovation at the Harvard Forest, and a research fellow at the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.


The Chattanoogan. 2006. Conservation incentives pass Senate: Waiting on President’s signature, August 7.

Davis, Adam. 2005. Mainstreaming environmental markets. In From Walden to Wall Street: Frontiers of conservation finance, James N. Levitt, ed., 155–171. Washington, DC: Island Press in association with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Ecosystem Marketplace. 2006. Ecosystem Marketplace Commentary: Draft mitigation regulations signal growing private sector role in conservation, Press Release, March 27.

Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County almanac. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1991. Conservation economics. In The river of the Mother of God and other essays by Aldo Leopold, Susan Flader and J. Baird Caldecott, eds., 193–202. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Pidot, Jeff. 2005. Reinventing conservation easements: A critical examination and ideas for reform. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.