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Adena Rissman is pictured here in the UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve. An associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology, Rissman studies the effectiveness of land trust and government efforts to protect private lands. Parts of the preserve were conserved by private citizens through the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, a precursor to modern land trusts, before the land was eventually given to the university. Photo credit: Michael P. King

With the warmer months upon us, the outdoor season is in full swing. There are hikes to take and birds to watch, fish to catch and shade to savor beneath the trees. And the fine weather doesn’t only bring play. Workers are hitting the fields and woods, planting and harvesting crops and trees. We see their bounty in farmer’s markets and crackling campfires.

All of these endeavors rely on one common element — good land. Parks, preserves, and other public lands are part of the picture, but private lands are critical too. Consider that, in Wisconsin, individuals and families own 57 percent of the state’s forests, which hundreds of companies rely on for the majority of their raw materials. And the state is home to 68,500 privately owned farms. When properly managed, private lands help keep our water clean and our plants and wildlife abundant; they provide a sustainable wood supply for books and hardwood floors, rich soil for growing food, and so much more. But parcelization, invasive pests and diseases, and unsustainable land use continue to threaten these vital natural resources, a trend that’s closely tied to the outcomes of public policy.

At this intersection of society and environment is where you will find Adena Rissman, associate professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. Much of her work focuses on natural resource policies and conservation strategies — their design, implementation, evaluation, and outcomes. A former forest planner for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, she also examines how society and its laws adapt to environmental change.

One of her team’s recent projects delves into digital mapping of private lands, which is critical for many stages of conservation, including planning, monitoring, evaluation, and accountability. Specifically, they looked closely at the public availability of geospatial data (locations on a global coordinate system) for conserved private lands. Based on their findings, they made recommendations for how to make this information more accessible. The study only scratches the surface of a broad research platform that covers conservation, adaptive ecosystem management, and sustainable resource use and their impact on forests, wildlife, rangelands, agriculture, and water resources across Wisconsin and the United States.

What are some of the biggest issues surrounding private land conservation right now?

Private lands are critically important for producing food, fiber, and fuel and for providing wildlife habitat, water quality, floodplain protection, and sometimes public recreation. We’re losing forests, farms, and wetlands while our conservation organizations have fewer resources to manage what remains. As housing is increasingly interspersed with forests and natural lands, fires become more life-threatening and expensive, and fragmentation is impacting wildlife habitat and forest and agricultural economies.

My research examines the design and effectiveness of private land conservation strategies. For instance, in Wisconsin, paper companies sold their land fairly rapidly, and we’re looking at the patterns in which lands were divided into smaller parcels or became part of public lands and conservation easements. Conservation easements are agreements between private landowners and conservation organizations, such as government agencies and nonprofit land trusts. The idea behind conservation easements is to provide permanent protection of lands and their conservation values.

Can you share some interesting findings from your research on land trusts and their participation in digital mapping?

We found that just about half of land trusts contributed maps of their conservation easements to regional or national databases. These maps help organizations coordinate their efforts and tell the story of conservation to decision makers and the public. But participation in mapping is growing, and we found that land trusts were more likely to have contributed maps if they had larger budgets, were involved in regional collaborations, had a strategic plan, found the maps useful, and had fewer privacy concerns. Land trusts were also more likely to share their maps if peer organizations in their states were also sharing them.

What were some of the recommendations that came out of this study?

To have useful geospatial data for planning, evaluation, and tracking what happens with conservation dollars spent, it would be helpful to have complete maps of conservation easements, which are public documents. Additional funds for compiling and mapping parcels are needed to complete the maps. As more organizations join in, they bring others along with them. incentive, regulatory, and other policies to look at their spatial patterns and found differences in how they target lands for improvement. For instance, some rely on the participants who are most likely to walk through the door, which helps landowners most interested in conservation, while other tools target areas with bigger pollution problems.

How might conservation easements and land trust be affected by environmental disruption like climate change?

Environmental changes from floods, fires, invasive species, and heat waves, which have been exacerbated by climate change, are impacting private lands, including lands under conservation easement. So organizations are now having to adapt their management to ensure that conservation protections can continue under climate change. In a 2011 survey of conservation professionals from nonprofit land trusts and government agencies, the majority were concerned about the effects of climate change on conservation easements, but very few conservation easements mention climate. So we have to look to other parts of the agreement to help us understand how to adapt land management to climate change.

How are water quality laws being changed in the face of increasing urban development and agricultural production?

We’re studying innovative ways of bringing urban and agricultural interests together to improve water quality. One challenge is that urban and agricultural sources of water pollutants are regulated differently, with more specific rules for sewerage districts and urban areas than for agriculture and other rural lands. Locally, in the Yahara Watershed around Madison, organizations are looking for ways that urban households can help pay farmers upstream to improve their practices. Our work has explored the role of urban-rural networks and the negotiations over how water quality models and measurements should matter for policy design, payments, and compliance.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of incentive-based policies and regulation-based policies related to water pollution?

Incentives and regulations are two important tools in the water quality toolbox that can help us all enjoy clean water for drinking, swimming, fishing, and beautiful days outside. One drawback is that incentives can be too expensive to make available for everyone at the levels required to actually improve water quality. One drawback of regulation is that one-size-fits-all rules don’t account for variation among people, firms, and places. They also may not keep up with emerging threats to water quality. We mapped dozens of incentive, regulatory, and other policies to look at their spatial patterns and found differences in how they target lands for improvement. For instance, some rely on the participants who are most likely to walk through the door, which helps landowners most interested in conservation, while other tools target areas with bigger pollution problems.

Why are voluntary programs such as Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law so vital in shaping land use?

The Managed Forest Law is an incentive program through which landowners pay reduced taxes if they follow sound forest management practices. It’s important for sustainable forestry because it helps landowners keep forests as forests that supply wood, recreation opportunities, and wildlife habitat, among other benefits. Tax policy like the Managed Forest Law reaches more forests than conservation easements. The Managed Forest Law has a 25-year minimum enrollment period; we found that this longer enrollment period helps the program be more effective in conserving forests and preventing parcelization. This finding was from before the most recent round of legal changes to the program, which made it easier to withdraw and parcelize land.

What’s the next step in your research?

We’re working on a longitudinal study of conservation easements in Wisconsin and elsewhere and their land cover effects and social relationships as landowners and conservation staff change. We aim to evaluate conservation easement effectiveness and provide resources to conservation organizations to help them manage changing social and ecological conditions.