Snyders everywhere

A new insurance product, one that I wish there was no need for: A grantor of a conservation easement sells his property. The new owner (usually one with deep pockets, because conservation land trusts don’t use easements to protect economically valueless land) decides to do what he likes with the property, contracts be damned. The volunteer-run, cash-strapped trust (if it weren’t poorly funded, it would have bought the land outright) has to take the new owner to court, and that gets expensive.

Now, as Felicity Barringer reports, a new non-profit insurance company, Terra Firma, is there to offer a policy to the trust to mitigate the legal fees needed to defend the easement.

Land trusts usually win in court — though many cases are settled, according to alliance records. One common denominator: the wealth of the property owners challenging restrictions.


Richard A. Fuller et al. make a provocative proposal in a recent latter to Nature. Working with a data set of the protected areas of Australia, the authors make a quantitative assessment of each preserve’s contribution to conserving vegetation types in the country. They then divide that contribution by the cost of continuing to protect the land (its estimated market value plus management costs), thereby deriving a benefit-cost ratio for each property. Fuller and his team find that about 1% of Australia’s protected areas are not pulling their weight in terms of conserving diversity, and propose that selling these lands (the local term of art is “degazettement”) and using the funds to acquire alternative lands leads to an overall increase in protection with no net impact on public spending.

There are certainly points to argue with in this work. The authors use conservation of vegetation types as their benefit measure, adjusted for the amount of each type found in the protected area and the percentage of each type remaining countrywide since the arrival of Europeans in the mid-eighteenth century. Another measure might yield different results. There are some benefits to protection—a visually attractive viewshed, for instance—that don’t appear to fit into this analysis. Along the same lines of thought, the importance of keystone or indicator species is discounted. If old-growth temperate rain forest is preserved specifically to protect Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis), there may be knock-on effects. Also, the work assumes that protection can be acquired at market rates, either through outright land purchase or through conservation easements.

Nevertheless, I think it’s a good step toward quantifying the tradeoffs that are an inevitable part of conservation. It’s also worth noting that nearly all the benefit gains are achieved by degazetting the “dogs,” the bottom 1%. Beyond that, the bang (as measured by number of vegetation types protected) doesn’t increase.

Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government is under pressure from the State of Wyoming over two parcels of state-owned land adjacent to Grand Teton National Park, as Bob Beck reports. The high-value properties are held by the state in order to produce revenue, but the lands are yielding little, due to federal restrictions on their use. Wyoming is looking to exchange the land for other lots that can be developed, say for coal mining.

Not the kind of counter you want

It’s really sad that such a widget has a reason to exist, but that’s environmental disasters for you.

The animation first caught my eye, because I was running Flashblock in my browser, which cuts down on a lot of visual distractions. A little code reading tells me that spinning wheels are accomplished with plain old JavaScript, specifically, a jQuery odometer widget.

One more bit of internet geeking: I stumbled onto the Firefox feature that clicking a URL in the View Page Source window does another View Page Source in turn.

Murky waters

The Economist sends a correspondent to look at wildlife in China, specifically birds. It’s not altogether a pretty sight.

The press of several hundred million people along the coast threatens marine organisms at risk from river discharges, heavy metals and pesticides from farmed shrimp ponds, oil spills, antifouling paint on boats and other chemical contaminants. Brian Morton, an expert on China’s seashore ecology recently retired from the University of Hong Kong, points out that only one-tenth of Chinese sewage is treated, leading to eutrophication and algal blooms in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea. In addition, several tens of thousands of seabirds are reckoned to be killed every year by an entangling mass of flotsam—fishing gear, grocery bags and the like. “As a biologist,” says Mr Morton, “I know that ecosystems can be restored. Still, the waters of China are virtually beyond redemption.”

To rebuild a wetland

Dr. Katharina (Katia) Engelhardt of the University of Maryland spoke to the Friends of Dyke Marsh about her research at the wetland and the prospects for its restoration. Dyke Marsh constitutes about 200 hectares of tidal freshwater marsh on the west bank of the Potomac River, just south of Alexandria, Va. and the Beltway. The marsh, as a wildlife preserve, is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway lands, administered by the National Park Service. The NPS is considering acting on long-discussed restoration and management plans for Dyke Marsh.

Over the decades, parts of the marsh have been overtaken by the river. Some of the causes are global—worldwide sea level has been rising at the rate of 3.1mm/year and the Chesapeake Bay at twice that rate—and some are, we suspect, local. A bridge over Hunting Creek, just upstream of the marsh, as well as other development and urbanization, has changed siltation patterns, perhaps starving the marsh of sediment. Dr. Engelhardt stressed that very little good erosion data were available for the area, so we don’t really know how accretion nets out against sea level changes.

Dr. Engelhardt’s research turned up a couple of surprises. Though much of the ground lies in the range of elevations from 0.3m to 0.8m, there is much bumpiness in the terrain. Tidal channels, rather than following a hierarchical flow from lower to higher orders, instead form a complex web of cross-linked flows. Her focus on the botany was limited to the emergent herbaceous vegetation. Even though tidal freshwater wetlands tend to be species-poor, nevertheless she and her research students found representatives of eleven taxa, annual and perennial, including spatter dock, wild rice, and cattails. (Invasives tend to be more prevalent in relative upland of the woods, which was not the focus of her studies.)

Three restoration scenarios were outlined:

  • Aggressive pumping and dredging to restore the marsh to its full extent from the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Partial restoration, perhaps in a shallow area below Hog Island, which was designated as a demonstration area in a 1977 study, with the possibility of further efforts.
  • Shoreline erosion control only.

Whatever we do, Dr. Engelhardt said, we must make sure that the effort is sustainable, that is, that future natural accretion is sufficient to maintain the marsh.