Data for all? How information sharing could shift land conservation, VA Department of Conservation and Recreation

Data for all? How information sharing could shift land conservation

Land conservation relies heavily on data to determine where protection should occur. But sharing data is not a common practice among land conservation groups. A new study investigates the reasons why some groups choose to share data with others and how this could change our perception of where land conservation occurs in the United States.

Rissman, A. R., Morris, A. W., Kalinin, A., Kohl, P. A., Parker, D. P., & Selles, O. (2019). Private organizations, public data: Land trust choices about mapping conservation easements. Land Use Policy89, 104221. doi: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2019.104221

Information is the cornerstone of land trust work. Fifty years ago, this information came in the form of hand-drawn maps, written notes, and physical photographs that documented a property’s conditions. Today, much of this work is done digitally, opening up new possibilities for data sharing.

Land trusts are nonprofit organizations that protect land either through conservation easements or by direct purchase. Conservation easements put certain restrictions on the future use of a piece of property. The landowner still retains the rights to sell it or pass it on to their children, but the conservation easement will be part of the deed forever. This keeps the property conserved across multiple generations. Each conservation easement has a digital property map, and it is normally only accessed by the specific land trust that worked with the landowner to create it.

Land trusts typically manage multiple easements at a time. So, when these maps are put together, a land trust can see areas they have protected and where they should prioritize future conservation. However, each land trust is limited to its own resources. Therefore, pooling resources could be a great way to increase strategic conservation planning across the country.

A few large land trusts recently collaborated to build a National Conservation Easement Database in an effort to create a complete picture of all privately protected U.S. lands. The database relies on individual land trusts sharing their own digital property maps with the national database. As the decision to share information varies widely, the database is still largely incomplete.

A team of researchers set out to determine what makes a land trust more likely to share their digital maps, and the barriers that prevent a land trust from contributing to the database. They hypothesized the most important factors to contribution were organizational capacity, perceived benefits or risks from sharing information, and norms among similar-sized organizations.

The researchers interviewed several land trust staff members and also used surveys. Survey results revealed that their hypotheses were correct: organizations were more likely to share their maps if they had larger budgets, operated in more states, and if easements were a greater proportion of their conserved lands. Also, if they already collaborated with other land trusts in their region, they were also more willing to contribute to a national database. Surprisingly, the top reason land trusts did not contribute is simply because they were not asked. 

This study highlights that the reasons land trusts chose to share or withhold information vary a great deal. It also shows more land trusts would likely contribute to a national database if there were more resources dedicated to mapping, if more land trusts knew that others were sharing their maps, and if the benefits of sharing were better articulated. These findings are important in our digitizing world, because they demonstrate a large abundance of data may go unshared simply because land conservationists may be unable to keep pace with the speed of changing technology.

Technological advances have necessitated, but also made possible, a future where collaboration is used to solve local and global conservation issues. As land conservation continues to evolve, land trust professionals must evaluate how to grow past collaborations, and consider forming new ones to overcome barriers highlighted in the study. In doing so, these professionals may usher in a new era of land stewardship, where coordinated efforts help achieve bigger conservation targets.