Monday, October 13, 2008

13% of earth now protected by environmentalists

The Nature Conservancy turned heads earlier this year by announcing an ambitious plan to protect 10% of the world's total land. This appeared to be a strikingly ambitious land acquisition endeavor; in fact the largest real estate acquisition proposal in history. But with declining land prices and a worldwide credit crunch, the cash-rich Nature Conservancy has often the only available buyer to farmers and landowners who need to sell. It is not surprising that conservation land deals are moving forward at a record pace this year. Still, no one expected to find such a dramatic change in land conservation totals so quickly.

Now Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy announces that 13% of the world's land surface is now protected open space in a new book "The World's Protected Areas, examines the relationship between people and protected areas". Mr. Spalding says that the amount of protected land is now equivalent in size to the total amount of the world's croplands. It is not clear whether TNC underestimates the amount of land previously under conservation prior to announcing its goal or whether the land acquisition project has progressed beyond its stated goals.

In the past The Nature Conservancy has relied primarily on a strategy of purchasing open land from private landowners and selling the land back to local governments at higher prices. This strategy vaulted TNC the world's wealthiest organizations. More recently, TNC began promoting a conservation easement program that allows farmers and rural landowners to continue to own and use the land, but prevented future development. Purchasing easements is less expensive than purchasing land and may be better for preserving the stability of rural and agricultural communities.

No comment has be issued by The Nature Conservancy about how this recent announcement of 13% will affect its plans for future land acquisitions. It seems reasonable possible given the current worldwide real estate market that environmental groups like TNC could continue to acquire land at a rapid pace and possible boost the total amount of protected land to 15% to 20% of the earth's surface. It seems unlikely that attainment of the 10% goal would deter TNC from future land acquisitions.

Mr. Spalding points out that our waterways and oceans are not equally protected, with only 1/2 of one percent of the world's oceans under conservation easement. Freshwater protection is even lower. This might represent the next major "growth market" for TNC acquisitions with potential consequences on water users and fishing industries. Noting that this major announcement is made by a marine scientist lends credibility to my suspicion that TNC is gearing for an increase in oceanic and waterway ventures. The fact that Mr. Spalding's announcement was strategically published overseas in The Daily Telegraph rather than in more critical U.S. news sources (due to the current political debate on use of offshore oil reserves) also makes me believe that this book announcement is part of a larger strategic maneuver by TNC.

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