Conservation easements, the legal binding of nature conservation to land, could strongly impact Europe to support the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and help restore biodiversity in many landscapes. The potential of conservation easements for private land conservation in the EU is confirmed. However, the legal, political, social and economic context differs considerably between European countries. In the LIFE ENPLC-project, we are currently collecting examples of conservation easements from different EU member states. But what kind of guidance can be provided on an EU level to advance the use of conservation easements in Europe?
In the USA, conservation easements significantly accelerated the increase in protected land
Due to our interest in accelerating private land conservation in Europe, we look at other parts of the world for inspiration. For instance, in the USA, legal and financial support combined in easements significantly accelerated the increase in protected land (Johnson, 2014).
Land under conservation easements in USA, National Conservation Easement Database (NCED)
With the US success story in mind, the potential of conservation easements for private land conservation in the EU has been confirmed by Racinska and Vahtrus (2018). Their assessment looks at the legislative basis for conservation easements in 25 EU countries. It finds that in 22 of them, easements (or variations of this mechanism) can be used to dedicate the property to nature conservation purposes.
We recently conducted a series of interviews with conservation practitioners from Belgium, Austria, France, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, Finland, and Hungary on the use and potential of conservation easements in their respective countries. These interviews came as a follow-up to the recently published study on the use of easements for conservation purposes in 25 EU member states based on an online survey, drawing conclusions on the current usage of the tool and its growth potential for conservation in the EU (Racinska, Halevy & Disselhoff, 2021).
Contextual differences explain why EU countries have different experience levels with conservation easements
We found that legal, political, social and economic contexts differ between European countries. This explains why conservation easements may be more advanced or have more potential in some EU countries than in others. To illustrate, Slovenia only gained independence in 1991. Before that, citizens could not own larger plots of land, as these would have become nationalised.
For Slovenia, conservation easements could be a valuable tool to protect areas with high nature value whilst keeping them in private ownership. But there are legal barriers that need to be brought down first. For instance, it is currently not possible to add a conservation clause to the state’s land register.
In Poland, on the other hand, ecological consciousness among the population is described as low compared to other EU countries. The idea of a conservation easement may not be seen as adding value, but rather as an attempt to take away rights from landowners.
Moreover, in Finland, the willingness of private landowners to engage in voluntary conservation schemes is comparatively high. This has helped the Finish Forest Biodiversity Programme for Southern Finland (METSO) programme quickly reach its targets and funding capacity limit, even turning down interested landowners who want to put an easement on their property. These contextual differences explain why EU countries have different experience levels with conservation easements.
Olive grove, part of private conservation efforts, Duro International Natural Park, Portugal 2022, photography Hans von Sonntag
Some European countries already have agreements that resemble US conservation easements
But in some European countries, some systems already resemble US conservation easements: the Flemish Nature Management Plan, the Finnish METSO, the Dutch Natuurschoonwet or the French Obligations Réelles Environnementales.
However, there are significant differences between these systems in operating and the financial incentives that are connected to them. For example, the Flemish Nature Management Plan is funded by the Flemish government and pays yearly subsidies to landowners depending on their ambition level and usually lasts for 24 years. In France, Obligations Réelles Environnementales (ORE) was created in 2016. The law includes the possibility of receiving a property tax deduction if an ORE has been signed. But the responsibility and the burden to do so lies with municipalities. Thus far, less than 10 towns in France have decided to allow for such a tax incentive. As suggested above, other countries like Poland, Slovenia, and Hungary have no systems comparable to a conservation easement.
Advancement of conservation easements—how can we support member states on an EU level?
Thus, considering such vast differences between EU member states, the question arises: what kind of guidance can we provide on an EU level to advance the use of conservation easements in the EU?
LIFE ENPLC is currently collecting examples of conservation easements from different EU member states. Although they greatly vary in detail, they share key elements, such as listing the restricted use rights, references to laws or complementary management plans, and the agreed compensation. Yet, some clauses are country-specific or only part of some agreements, whilst they could add value to other agreements. For instance, a paragraph on exemptions of the contract. It should be noted that there is currently a lack of legal disputes in the EU that would help us evaluate the fortitude of these agreements. Bringing in experience from outside the EU may compensate for this lack of experience to some degree.
By comparing these contracts and their elements, Eurosite plans to create a template that can be used for various types of conservation matters in EU countries. As part of the LIFE ENPLC project, this template will be trialled in at least 5 different EU countries, trying to confirm that a template can be created to be useful in an overarching European context.
Johnson, L. A. (2014). An open field: Emerging opportunities for a global private land conservation movement. Cambridge MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Račinska, I.; Halevy, C.; Disselhoff, T. (2021). The current and potential use of easements as a nature conservation tool in the European Union.
Račinska, I., Vahtrus, S. (2018). The Use of Conservation Easements in the European Union. Report to NABU Federal Association.