Environmental Management

, Volume 52, Issue 1, pp 277-288

Land Management Restrictions and Options for Change in Perpetual Conservation Easements

  • Adena RissmanAffiliated withDepartment of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison Email author 
  • , Menka BihariAffiliated withDepartment of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , Christopher HamiltonAffiliated withDepartment of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , Christina LockeAffiliated withDepartment of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , David LowensteinAffiliated withUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , Melissa MotewAffiliated withUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , Jessica PriceAffiliated withUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison
  • , Robert SmailAffiliated withUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison

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Conservation organizations rely on conservation easements for diverse purposes, including protection of species and natural communities, working forests, and open space. This research investigated how perpetual conservation easements incorporated property rights, responsibilities, and options for change over time in land management. We compared 34 conservation easements held by one federal, three state, and four nonprofit organizations in Wisconsin. They incorporated six mechanisms for ongoing land management decision-making: management plans (74 %), modifications to permitted landowner uses with discretionary consent (65 %), amendment clauses (53 %), easement holder rights to conduct land management (50 %), reference to laws or policies as compliance terms (47 %), and conditional use permits (12 %). Easements with purposes to protect species and natural communities had more ecological monitoring rights, organizational control over land management, and mechanisms for change than easements with general open space purposes. Forestry purposes were associated with mechanisms for change but not necessarily with ecological monitoring rights or organizational control over land management. The Natural Resources Conservation Service-Wetland Reserve Program had a particularly consistent approach with high control over land use and some discretion to modify uses through permits. Conservation staff perceived a need to respond to changing social and ecological conditions but were divided on whether climate change was likely to negatively impact their conservation easements. Many conservation easements involved significant constraints on easement holders’ options for altering land management to achieve conservation purposes over time. This study suggests the need for greater attention to easement drafting, monitoring, and ongoing decision processes to ensure the public benefits of land conservation in changing landscapes.


Ecosystem management Environmental policy Land trusts Private land conservation Working forests Conservation easements