CORVALLIS, Ore. - America is experiencing a huge growth in the conservation of land by private trusts, and new research has found that even more conservation benefits could be gained by coordination among different groups or government land-protection programs with similar goals.

From 1998 to 2003, about 1,500 private trusts more than doubled the amount of land in the United States that such groups have been able to protect for conservation purposes, such as species protection, flood control or recreation.

Two new studies by researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Illinois outline the value of good coordination of such activities between private groups, and between these groups and state and federal governments. It's also essential that government agencies better understand the effect they have on private activities in order to optimize the environmental and conservation goals that both sides hope to achieve, scientists say.

In some cases, in fact, protection of lands by government agencies has actually served to repel private conservation on nearby lands - a situation that can defeat a frequent goal of creating larger, contiguous blocks of land for endangered species protection and other goals. In any case, the researchers said, government agencies must realize that their decisions can and do influence the private sector.

"In the 1990s, there was a significant increase by private groups to obtain or protect land for conservation purposes," said Heidi Albers, an associate professor of forest resources in the OSU College of Forestry. "A question was whether those uncoordinated efforts could produce the patterns of conservation that society prefers. We found that there are a number of ways that private and public agencies could generate more conservation value."

One of the leading issues, researchers said, was whether public programs work to encourage or discourage private conservation efforts. In studies done in three states, they found that in Illinois and Massachusetts, public conservation programs tended to spatially repel private efforts; while in California, the public and private initiatives created spatially aggregated land holdings.

"In some areas and for some conservation purposes, such as watershed or species protection, it is preferable to have connected networks of reserves, which is what appears to be developing in California," Albers said.

"However, in other areas and states, different conservation purposes and localized public goals, such as open space for recreation, have particular importance and contribute to the landscape."

Particularly in Massachusetts, the report noted, "Private conservation is very local . . . people love what they have and protect it regardless of whether it is ecologically valuable." In California, by contrast, private conservation was found most often in areas that have wealthy and politically liberal residents, and in areas with high-value natural resources, such as wetlands, endangered species, or unique forests.

Among other findings and possible policy implications of the studies:

  • Because conservation options are so vast and both governments and land trusts have serious budgets constraints and limits on what they can accomplish, there does not appear to be any major conflict that would diminish the interest or efforts of each group, no "crowding out" effect.
  • In optimal situations, especially as was observed in California, government land protections can serve as a "seeding effect" that attracts even more interest and contributions from private groups.
  • The reverse can also be true; a private conservation group focusing its efforts on a particular territory can induce government to make strategic investments in that same location.
  • Some "hot spots" of ecological diversity are far more important than other areas, and governments might consider leaving them as especially attractive targets for private investment, while public resources are targeted elsewhere for a greater overall benefit.
  • Diverse groups have difficulty working together, and one cost-effective role for government to play might be the coordination of efforts, so that private and public programs alike work in concert for the greatest environmental benefits.
  • Tax breaks and subsidies for targeted conservation efforts can be effective.

The vast majority of permanently protected government land was in conservation status long before the private conservation movement gained strength, the scientists noted. However, the private conservation agencies are a driving force for further land conservation in the nation, they said, and it's essential that public and private efforts now be well coordinated.

In their analysis, the scientists studied both existing conservation decisions and created economic models to predict those most likely in the future.

This research was supported by a three-year, $320,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Heidi J. Albers,