Legendary biologist E.O. Wilson has a radical idea on how to save the planet, set aside half of the planet’s land for the over 10 million species we share the world with. The Half Earth movement seems like an audacious goal but it might be the only thing to head off a mass extinction event. How do we get there and how can individual landowners help? In the U.S. conservation easements might help create corridors of green untamed space that could support life for hundreds of years.
A recent Smithsonian article discussed Wilson’s dream and the action taken by M.C. Davis, a multimillionaire who has bought up massive amounts of land and reseeded in longleaf pines with an eye toward creating a habitat for the Florida black bear. Davis and Wilson share a dream of creating chains of natural corridors, long and untouched spans of land that would provide species with a way to migrate as needed to adjust to climate changes.
Currently over 4% of the United States is protected land. The National Wildnerness Preservation System (managed by the National ParkService, U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management) oversees 758 designated wilderness areas adding up to over 109 million acres of land.
How do we do more, especially when so much land in heavily settled areas such as New England rests in the hands of private owners? Conservation easements could provide an answer. They don’t make the land public but create a situation in which the landowner is the steward of the land in return for tax breaks. While this does mean that the government loses some money in property taxes, the end result is that the individual landowner has contributed to the public good, creating a situation in which the land is protected for now and for future generations.
Davis is far from the only multimillionaire with with protected land. The always voluble Ted Turner has also taken a leading role establishing the Turner Endangered Species Fund to help maintain biodiversity on the millions of acres he owns. In 2012, billionaire Louis Bacon donated a 76,700-acre conservation easement, creating the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area in Colorado and New Mexico. A 2010 Land Trust Alliance census showed that 47 million acres are conserved through land trusts. However conservation easements have faced some criticism as some say they are just another tax cut that benefits the rich.
Despite the controversy conservation easements remain as one of the best tools for helping to preserve swaths of privately owned property. The challenge for some conservation groups is being able to roll out these types of programs on a grander scale and to connect the individual pockets of land into a greater whole. Biodiversity not only connects us with our past, it helps preserve our future. Technology makes it possible to communicate these messages more broadly and drives home the message that even as we embrace our known world, we must also hold on to our wild hearts.