Endowment and Partners Announce Plan for Conservation Easement Database

GREENVILLE, SC, 8/31/2009: The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (the Endowment), with generous support of the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation, today announced a collaborative initiative to create the first national database of conservation easement information.

When completed, the National Conservation Easement Database (NCED) will for the first time show a comprehensive picture of the estimated 40 million acres of privately owned conservation easement lands across America. This overview will allow better strategic planning for conservation and development.

“Nearly a decade into the technology-driven 21st century there remains no single source of information on private lands that have been voluntarily protected for future generations of Americans,” said Endowment President Carlton Owen. “We’ve been working with a range of cooperators in resource agencies and the conservation community to determine what is needed and how to fill the void.”

The Endowment’s Board approved a $1,000,000 investment to create NCED. The system will balance public interests with private needs and concerns such as confidentiality and rights of private owners.

“We’ve been working for years through the Protected Areas Database Initiative, or PAD-US, to develop a single system that allows mapping and review of all publicly owned lands – federal, state, municipal, etc.,” said Jim Hubbard, Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, USDA Forest Service. “Creation of the conservation easement database will add a missing layer of vital information needed to better direct ecological as well as economic planning and investment.”

Three federal agencies – the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Forest Service (USFS) – are partnering with the Endowment in support of the national database. Other key partners include The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the nation’s largest private lands conservancy, and the Land Trust Alliance (the Alliance) representing the views and concerns of the nation’s nearly 1700 local and regional land trusts.

“We think creation of the national database will serve everyone’s interests and needs,” said Rand Wentworth, President of the Alliance. “Many of our members operate only with volunteers and have very limited access to technology and planning tools. This database, which will use state-of-the-art technology, will offer a new dimension never before available to local conservationists and planners.”

To help design the new system, the Endowment has pulled together a group of five conservation organizations that have extensive local and regional experience working with conservation easements and data systems. The team — Conservation Biology Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, NatureServe and the Trust for Public Land — aims to create a user-friendly, highly interactive system that will allow uploading, viewing, mapping and planning using public lands and conservation easement data at multiple scales — watershed, county or state.

“We’re excited to be partnering with these outstanding organizations on NCED,” said Mary Klein, President and CEO of NatureServe. “Reliable data about what lands are protected is essential to good planning for conservation or development, and that’s what this project will provide.”

Conservation easements are legal agreements voluntarily entered into between landowners and conservation entities (agencies or land trusts) for the express purpose of protecting certain societal values such as open space or vital wildlife habitats. In some cases landowners transfer “development rights” for direct payment or for federal and state tax benefits.

“Conservation easements are a critical tool in land protection” said Ducks Unlimited’s Alan Wentz, Senior Group Manager for Conservation, Communications and Marketing. “Having comprehensive information on where and what types of easements are occurring on the landscape will be invaluable for conservation planning and reporting activities.”

“We haven’t had a comprehensive picture of where conservation is happening. This project will provide a better understanding of where investments are being made and promote opportunities for collaboration,” said Sara Vickerman of Defenders of Wildlife.

The project will begin immediately, with the initial database, representing all 50 states, to be completed within 24 months. “We believe we can achieve this ambitious timeline because we plan to build on tools already developed by the project partners and draw on the bounty of data available from the major project cooperators (NRCS, FWS, USFS, the Alliance and TNC),” said Ernest Cook, Senior Vice President and Director of Conservation Strategies for the Trust for Public Land.