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Management in Practice

Land Trusts’ New Tools for Fighting the Climate Crisis

Climate change has created myriad problems that will require broad collaboration to fix. James Levitt ’80, director of the International Land Conservation Network at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, explains how land trusts are bringing both existing expertise and innovative new tools to tackle the urgent efforts.

Site Wind Right
Site Wind Right, The Nature Conservancy
  • James Levitt
    Director, International Land Conservation Network at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Q: Where do land trusts fit in the fight against climate change?

There are so many creative ways that land trusts and conservancies are helping society prepare for and deal with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Land trusts are building corridors of open space along the Appalachian ridges all the way from Georgia to Maine and beyond to New Brunswick and Quebec. These corridors create continental scale vectors, allowing plants and animals to migrate over time to places where the climate treats them more kindly, just as their native environments are getting too hot.

Land trusts can help in drought mitigation and, if water shortages make things like agriculture untenable, they help identify the best places to convert to other uses. We’re seeing a great deal of that happen today in California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

The Land Trust Alliance, which is an umbrella group for most of the land trusts in the United States, reports that its member land trusts can account for the protection of some 61 million acres of land since the 1970s—that’s an area equivalent to the state of Oregon. It’s the result of efforts by small and large organizations spread across every state. This has made a substantial and measurable difference on our maps and on the ground.

Q: Can land trusts work at the scale required?

“We have to protect large areas of land systematically. That involves crossing geographic boundaries. To get to that scale, to finance such projects, we also have to cross sectoral boundaries.”

Whether the desired impact is carbon sequestration, buffering from sea level rise, biodiversity protection, clean drinking water, or flood mitigation, we have to protect large areas of land systematically. That involves crossing geographic boundaries. To get to that scale, to finance such projects, we also have to cross sectoral boundaries.

We need to involve the public sector, the nonprofit sector, the private sector, and the academic sector. And increasingly not only in the United States, but across the world, it is particularly important to involve indigenous communities in this effort. Thankfully, indigenous people around the globe sometimes live in the midst of great expanses of land that can be titled and protected to enhance human quality of life, as well as the quality of life of all the plants and animals and ecosystems on which we depend.

Land trusts and conservancies can complement work done in all those sectors by acting as partners providing expertise, innovation, and continuity on projects that can take decades to implement. They can also act independently to protect natural resources in perpetuity which, as they say in the land trust business, is a really long time.

There isn’t a person on earth who will not be affected by climate change. The public’s will to address climate change and to make an enduring difference in this decade is critical to the contours of life for the rest of the century and beyond. So, all sectors matter in the fight against climate change.

Q: What are the most pressing limits on land trusts’ capacity to have an impact?

Financial limitations. Those are inevitable, but land trusts and conservancies are always working to improve their use of financial, social, and human capital. Technologies have enabled land trusts to increase their impact—particularly geospatial information systems (GIS) and remote sensing technologies.

Similarly, there are very sensitive tools that can be used on the ground to figure out how much carbon is being sequestered or how much phosphorous and nitrogen is being removed from agricultural and urban storm runoff. Precise measurement is becoming increasingly important in the field of climate change adaptation and mitigation for all kinds of players, including land trusts, conservancies, and other civic sector organizations—whether they are voluntarily working to reduce their own impact on the environment, or are working in collaboration with people who will purchase carbon credits, nutrient credits, or wildlife credits to offset their development activities.

Q: Along with Chandni Navalkha, your colleague at the Lincoln Institute, you co-authored From the Ground Up: How Land Trusts and Conservancies Are Providing Solutions to Climate Change. The report offers a number of case studies highlighting innovations in the field. Could you describe the Site Wind Right case and why it matters?

Site Wind Right is a remarkably interesting project that has taken two decades to germinate and mature. It was sponsored first by the Kansas and Oklahoma chapters of the Nature Conservancy. They were part of a group including land trusts, government agencies, and private landowners working to protect the last remaining tallgrass prairies. They saw that renewable energy had the potential to deliver essential benefits if renewable energy project development is done in the right places, and in the right way. They developed a tool that today covers 19 states in the central U.S.

This tool combines over 100 layers of GIS data into a map showing where to site renewable energy projects. It “de-risks” planning by showing where there are likely to be environmental or civil engineering conflicts that will add costs or potentially stop a project.

For example, if you were building wind turbines in the wind belt in the United States—that is roughly from Texas to North Dakota—there’s a layer showing where you will have sufficient wind for utility scale generation. There are layers showing where civic infrastructure connected to aviation or telecommunications would create problems. That’s helpful but it isn’t new. Developers could already get that information from different vendors and from the government.

Where Site Wind Right adds something that’s strategically valuable is by collecting scientific data about the location of wildlife migration routes, breeding grounds, and over-wintering grounds. Information on the seasonal appearance of wildlife across hundreds of species hadn’t been collected and mapped in one place. The Nature Conservancy, with the assistance of hundreds of scientists, very diligently gathered the information and now keeps it updated.

If you were to act in a way that is responsive to concerns about wildlife, you wouldn’t put your wind farm in the middle of a whooping crane migration route, or on a sensitive site for black-footed ferrets, or a place where endangered Prairie Chickens breed. Developers, state energy commissions, and the various federal regulatory agencies have often tried, in a sometimes hit-or-miss fashion, to incorporate biodiversity conflicts into the planning. That’s costly. Now they can do an initial screen for such conflicts with one fairly comprehensive tool. It’s not the answer to all siting questions, but it’s a valuable resource.

What is remarkable is that, even after such large-scale screening, there are still enough sites to locate a terawatt of wind capacity on appropriate, low-conflict sites in the states examined—that is an amount of raw capacity which is close to the entire current electric power capacity of the United States. The takeaway is that we can deliver ample supplies of renewable energy, even when we’re careful to avoid conflicts with wildlife and built civil infrastructure.

The tool is now being scaled up to consider the suitability of sites for solar photovoltaic installations, as well as wind turbine sites, across the entire continental United States. In addition, the tool is inspiring adaptations as far away as India and China.

Q: There’s growing interest in carbon offsets. In From the Ground Up, you describe a project in Vermont demonstrating that the owners of comparatively small forests can work collectively to participate in carbon markets.

Companies such as Amazon, Target, and Microsoft—the list is growing every day—need to buy carbon offsets and produce what are being called carbon “insets” (emissions reductions within the company’s supply chain) to meet net zero commitments on increasingly rapid timetables, so there’s a market for carbon credits.

But there are costs associated with determining how much carbon will be sequestered through wildland conservation or sustainable forestry— where you’re leaving more carbon in the ground than you’re harvesting any given year. There are costs for developing an appropriate financial structure and third-party verification. There are legal and registry fees. Those “soft” costs can range from $250,000 to $1 million. So, it has been unusual for forests of less than 5,000 acres to see it as feasible to enter a carbon market.

In the Eastern United States, a great deal of the forests that remain are in the hands of small landowners, people who own less than 1,000 acres. Many would like to participate, but it hasn’t made financial sense.

William Keeton, a member of the board of the Vermont Land Trust and a forestry professor at the University of Vermont, believed it would be possible to bring in smaller landholders by aggregating wood lots. He proposed a proof-of-concept project.

It took a decade of careful work by the Vermont Land Trust, along with several other organizations and landowners, to assemble 12 parcels totaling 8,625 acres and then to build the right legal and financial structures to aggregate them in a way that was legally and financially acceptable and marketable. It’s not simple. It takes a lot of meticulous work to get to the point where you’ve got a real product, but they did it.

I believe it was a public service because it set a precedent and showed that you can overcome the hurdle of soft costs, allowing smaller players to enter an increasingly important marketplace.

Q: Those first two case studies took years to develop and implement. They were based in the U.S. and started with the land trusts. The report also highlights a project in China that ramped up quickly, became huge, and started not with a land trust but with a private company.

After China signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, the government developed emissions targets and decarbonization pathways. One pathway was green finance. It didn’t seem like an idea that was easily accessible to the public, but a small group of junior employees at Ant Financial, the mobile payment spinoff of Alibaba, developed an app call Ant Forest. It gamified individual efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Users got points when they used public transit, ordered utensil-free takeout, or purchased energy-efficient appliances.

When users earned enough points, they could buy and grow a virtual tree in the app. When that virtual tree was fully grown, Ant Financial, through a partnership with an environmental NGO, planted a drought-resistant saxaul tree in Inner Mongolia to combat desertification.

The project created this dual benefit of building awareness among consumers and having actual trees planted. It grew very quickly. Ant partnered with NGOs all over the country to plant trees appropriate to the different regions. Eventually they allowed users to “adopt” five-square-meter plots of protected land.

By 2020, 550 million people were using the app, 220 million trees had been planted, and more than 100,000 acres of land had been protected.

A mobile payment app in the Philippines has replicated the approach. There’s a credit card in the United States that’s trying to do something similar.

Q: Ant Forest engaged hundreds of millions of people. From the Ground Up also offers the case study of NeighborSpace, an organization in Baltimore County, Maryland, that has protected 100 acres spread over 21 sites including a parcel that is 0.15 acres (about twice the area of a tennis court). Why highlight an organization working at such a small scale?

Since 2002, NeighborSpace has been figuring out how to turn small parcels of land into greenspaces for public enjoyment and to provide ecosystem services. It’s a model for how land trusts can work in urban and suburban settings. The amount of land being protected may be small, but the benefits can be large both environmentally and in terms of the people the work serves and reaches. Many of the people in these neighborhoods are people of color or people with lower-than-average incomes.

Baltimore County, just outside the city of Baltimore, was developed after World War II to house GIs and their families. The houses are small and densely packed. Developers and regulators didn’t pay much attention to parks or pedestrian walkways. In some neighborhoods, there are very few places for kids to play. And, in the intense downpours that are associated with climate change, there are very few ways to manage stormwater.

The runoff ended up in residential basements along with oil and other residues that were coming off the streets and, in one neighborhood, from a leaky underground storage tank at an abandoned Hess gas station.

NeighborSpace worked with Hess, the county, and the community to remove the gas station, remediate the soil, and build a small park that also has a large stormwater drainage capacity. The kids in the neighborhood love having a playground. The residents are greatly relieved that their basements don’t flood so frequently.

The work is important both from an environmental justice point of view and for building public awareness and enthusiasm for efforts to address climate change. The small park benefited their neighborhood in a very obvious and measurable way; it also contributed to the fight to adapt to climate change. That helps build public consensus about the significance and effectiveness of climate change action.

“If we’re to have a planet that’s rich in life and safe, if we’re to get through what the biologist E. O. Wilson called the bottleneck of the 21st century, we need to change so many things about the way we generate power and use natural resources.”

Q: In your view, where do things stand in the effort to address climate change?

Every day I read the news with both trepidation and hope. If we’re to have a planet that’s rich in life and safe, if we’re to get through what the biologist E. O. Wilson called the bottleneck of the 21st century, we need to change so many things about the way we generate power and use natural resources.

We’re on some very steep learning curves when you look at electric vehicles and solar, wind, and geothermal technologies, but I’m convinced that we’re making incredibly rapid progress on all of those fronts.

I also think it’s becoming increasingly clear that for political, national security, and environmental reasons, we must not allow some nations to control the fate of other nations through the supply of fossil fuels.

But it’s going to require the will of people and the recognition of the urgency of this problem to get the job done. We need innovation, engineering skill, and trillions and trillions of dollars to ensure life on earth persists for our children’s children’s children.

I’m hopeful there are windows opening now and awareness being developed that will enable us to do what we need to do.