Conserving Private Lands to Protect Vital Wetlands

Wetland restoration is fundamentally a social and economic issue

Land meets wetlands in the NY’s Catskill Mountains. By Tiner Ralph, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Land meets wetlands in the NY’s Catskill Mountains. By Tiner Ralph, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Tom Langen, Ph.D., is associate professor of biology and psychology at Clarkson University and a member of the faculty for RiverU. He teaches animal behavior, ecology, conservation biology and global environmental change. His research includes the impacts of wetland restorations on private lands.The interview below first appeared in the January 18, 2014 Poughkeepsie Journal.


Q: Your study of the ecological, social and economic impacts of wetland restoration projects is unique in its focus on private lands under conservation easement. What is the potential for and significance of connecting important habitats with increased participation by private landowners?

TL: There are two major reasons to focus on private land conservation. First, there are economic and political limits to how much land can be set aside as conservation reserves. We know that the size and location of reserves are not adequate to conserve all species or ecological processes. Fortunately, most species also occur on private land. Good stewardship of private property can maintain many species without impinging much on how a landowner uses a property. Private property can also serve as a corridor for movement of wildlife between conservation reserves. Population interchange is essential for maintaining healthy populations in reserves, and good private land stewardship can provide habitat suitable for wildlife movements.

An equally important reason to focus on private land conservation is to maintain a healthy environment by preserving and enhancing ecosystem services across the landscape. Ecosystem services are the services that nature provides to benefit human health and welfare. Wetlands help treat contaminants and excess nutrient runoff from human activities, reduce flood risks, increase groundwater recharge, provide recreational opportunities such as hunting and fishing, and are, for some people, visually pleasing. For people to receive the ecosystem service benefits of wetlands, wetlands should be distributed throughout the landscapes where people live – not just relegated to remote conservation reserves. Private landowners play a significant role in maintaining wetlands, if these services are to be available in human-dominated landscapes.

Unfortunately, the extent of wetlands is severely reduced from that of the past. Wetlands were drained because of concerns about flooding risks or disease transmission. Governmental programs encouraged wetland drainage in agricultural regions to increase arable farmland. Today, some of the same agencies that once provided incentives to drain wetlands now acknowledge that wetlands are important components of agricultural landscapes because of the ecosystem services they provide, and therefore now provide incentives to restore the drained wetlands.

Q: Given your experience of working with private landowners and studying the ecological, social and economic impacts of wetlands restoration projects, what are the benefits of this interdisciplinary approach? Will public-private partnerships play a key role in the future survival of wildlife habitats?

TL: Wetland restoration is, in part, a technical problem. Wetlands are surprisingly complicated ecosystems – it isn’t just ‘add water and nature provides the rest’. Hydrologists understand how water moves through the landscape, on the surface and in the soil. Ecologists focus on how wetland-associated organisms come to colonize a restored wetland, and how the presence of these organisms alters the water quality and ecosystem activities, hopefully for the better in terms of ecosystem services. There are complex feedbacks: hydrology affects what plants, animals, and microbes colonize a restored wetland, and these organisms in turn alter hydrology.

Wetland restoration is fundamentally, however, a social and economic issue. If we have a goal of restoring and conserving wetlands on private land, we need to understand the reasons why some landowners chose to conserve wetlands, and others are indifferent or hostile to the concept. Social scientists investigate what people do and why they do it. The reasons that motivate people to conserve wetlands may be different than why I, as an environmental scientist, feel wetlands should be conserved. People may never have heard the term ‘ecosystem services’, but surveys and interviews may show that people recognize many of these services and value them. For example, our interviews have shown that many landowners like having wetlands on their property because to them a wetland is beautiful, and a desirable place to hunt, walk dogs, or pursue other recreational activities. However, people make decisions not only because of their personal values, but also because of what neighbors and the community value. Social scientists can address the question of how important community perceptions are about the value of wetlands to the decisions that individual property owners make about wetland restoration.

Q. Why does land conservation appeal to some landowners but not to others?

TL. To understand the incentives that cause some landowners to restore and conserve wetlands and others not, we also need to understand the economic incentives and disincentives to landowners.  There are some modest direct short-term monetary incentives to wetland restoration in a few public-private partnership programs – programs where a government agency or non-profit organization partners with a landowner to restore or conserve a wetland. Other programs actually require the landowner to cover part of the expense of wetland restoration. Wetland conservation should lower a landowner’s property assessment, and therefore property tax burden, because the conservation commitment reduces the options for property use. However, conservation of a wetland on a property can increase the property assessment, if potential buyers are willing to pay more for a property that has the amenities a wetland provides. One serious economic issue is how the benefits and costs of wetland conservation are distributed – the landowner bears the costs of conserving a wetland on the property, but many of the ecosystem service benefits are provided to neighbors as well as the landowner; the neighbors get a ‘free-ride’. Recently, there has been a move in many places to provide monetary compensation – direct payments or tax breaks – for landowners who provide ecosystem services to a community. This is not a new concept; the US Department of Agriculture has long provided monetary compensation for farmers who enact soil conservation practices.

There is a huge potential for private land wetland conservation to help conserve nature, including threatened species, while providing benefits to landowners and the landowners’ communities. The popularity of wetland restoration programs – several hundred landowners have participated in such programs in New York State alone – indicates that people are responsive to the concept. However, for long-term sustainability, we need to learn what makes some restorations better than others in terms of the ecosystem services they provide and their success at meeting landowners’ expectations. We need to understand why some landowners, policy-makers, and communities are hostile to the concept of wetland restoration, and respond to this information appropriately. It may be modifying where and how we restore wetlands, or educating community members on the values of wetland restoration, or altering policies to provide better economic incentives. The research of my interdisciplinary team is intended to provide the information needed to evaluate the success of wetland restoration programs, and identify opportunities to make these programs more successful and sustainable conservation tools.