As the watershed’s population grows, new development pressures are dramatically changing the landscape. Energy infrastructure, in particular, can pose a challenge to protecting geographic and cultural corridors. On the other hand, land use pressures can open opportunities for dialogue and decision-making to protect ecologically and cultural valuable lands or mitigate when impacts are unavoidable. When mitigation or sound land-use planning opens land to recreation, public demand for more protected areas and advocacy for further protection measures can increase. This can improve conservation progress.
As watershed residents move toward urban areas, the value of land near commercial centers grows. As competition for an economically viable use of this land intensifies, the incentives and pressures to develop compete with the values that support conservation. Fragmented land ownership also contributes to the need for greater communication, consensus building and cooperation in protecting contiguous parcels of land. Older settlement and development patterns, relatively smaller parcels of land and a higher percentage of privately-owned land have made land ownership in the eastern United States more fragmented than in the West. However, the region has a long history of coordinating conservation efforts across jurisdictional boundaries and momentum around conservation at the landscape scale is growing. A strong legacy of land protection precedes our efforts and continues today.
As land is protected, managers and funders must address strategies to support long-term land management. Maintenance funding is often limited. Privately held easements require monitoring, which can be complicated when land transfers to second-generation owners. Technical and financial assistance can build the capacity of land trusts and volunteers to manage and monitor land. Designations (e.g., heritage areas), public-private co-management arrangements, stewardship funds and innovative citizen engagement tools can also expand maintenance capacities and increase funding for land management.
Competition for conservation funding has grown in recent years, due to the decline of funding sources and, in some cases, the less than optimal alignment of existing resources. Federal and state funding for land conservation could be better aligned with funding for working lands, recreation, water quality, biological diversity and related efforts to increase the overall funding pool. The private sector, which includes donors, foundations and landowners, presents opportunities for funding and stewardship that could be better leveraged with limited public resources.
Political support across all levels of government will play a critical role in achieving this outcome. Recent state administrations have provided tremendous support. Jurisdictions and federal agencies have also coordinated their land conservation priorities, culminating in a shared conservation goal for all involved.
Land conservation faces attitudinal challenges. Because attitudes toward land conservation vary, approaches to education, engagement, policy and advocacy must be tailored toward local needs and opportunities. Shifting demographics will also make it necessary to reach out to young people, urban populations and underrepresented groups not traditionally engaged in land conservation.
A changing climate places ecologically and culturally significant places at risk. Changing temperatures and precipitation patterns force us to plan for changing species and habitat migration patterns. Sea level rise threatens the viability of coastal and low-elevation parcels for protection and therefore existing and prospective conservation easements. And a number of climate change impacts require the creation of resiliency and disaster management plans for conserved lands, with current landowners absorbing new cost and management responsibilities. Land protection is complicated by a changing climate. But it is also one of the many tools that can offset the impacts of climate change. Protected shorelines, in particular, can mitigate rising tides and allow the surrounding ecosystem to adapt to changes in the coastline.