Conservation covenants are an increasingly popular strategy for conserving biodiversity on private land but how effective are they? New research involving CEED, RMIT and The Nature Conservancy has revealed there’s much to commend these agreements in Australia but there’s also some work we need to do to ensure their effectiveness.
“There’s a growing trend in many parts of the world for land owners to enter into conservation covenants,” says Mat Hardy, the RMIT scientist leading the research on covenants.
“These are often permanent and legally binding agreements that place restrictions on what activities can take place on the land; for example they often prevent the clearing of native vegetation from parts of a property. Landowners enter into these agreements because it helps them preserve the natural values of the land they love, and governments like these agreements because it helps them meet their obligations to conserve biodiversity.”
The first conservation covenant in Australia was a wildlife refuge on private land established back in 1951 (in New South Wales). Since then the number of covenants has grown considerably to around 7,500 across Australia, with most of those being established in the last 25 years.
“From a conservation policy perspective, the permanence and security of these agreements with private landholders are central issues,” observes Hardy.
“In theory, most conservation covenants in Australia are permanent in that the conditions they impose are passed on to the new owners when the land is sold. However, there was little information available on the permanence and security of covenants in Australia. So we asked the 13 major covenanting organisations that operate in this country whether the covenants they oversaw were still in place and whether the obligations they prescribed had been observed.”
Although security provisions vary between programs, all covenants in Australia are backed by legislation, with release (i.e., the removal of the covenant) usually requiring approval from multiple parties including the landholder and the relevant government Minister. The exception is the Wildlife Refuge program, which is only available in New South Wales and is unique amongst Australian covenants for only requiring approval for release from a single party (i.e., the land holder can choose to opt out voluntarily).
The information collected by the researchers showed that of the 6,818 multi-party covenants created across Australia, only eight had been released (0.12%). Of the 673 single-party (NSW Wildlife Refuge) covenants formed, 130 had been released.
“Based on these figures, very few covenants have been released, and multi-party covenants are clearly a better agreement in terms of permanence,” observes Hardy. “Part of that would relate to the greater difficulty of exiting a multi-party agreement.”
“We also asked what’s happening with covenant breaches. Are landholders abiding by the terms of the covenant?”
Unfortunately, the researchers found that detailed breach data was hard to get hold of, making it very difficult to accurately determine the number and types of breaches that had occurred. It was also difficult to assess what impact the breaches were having on the natural values the covenants had been established to protect (if any). This relates to the bigger issue of needing improved monitoring and recording of conservation covenants.
“Our study showed the agreements are, on the whole, relatively secure and enduring but we need ongoing monitoring and reporting to assess the true contribution of these agreements,” says Hardy.
“What’s more, some organizations suggested that the turnover of conservation covenants to ‘successor landholders’ may be developing into a policy issue, requiring agencies to engage with the new landholders and ensure they are as committed to the terms of the covenant as the original owners.
“Keep in mind that the majority of existing covenants were created in the last 25 years so we would expect to see a growing number of these agreements being transferred to new owners in the coming years.
“Given this, coupled with a growing enthusiasm by governments to encourage new conservation covenants, the need for ongoing and effective monitoring has never been greater.”
Hardy MJ, JA Fitzsimons, SA Bekessy & A Gordon (2016). Exploring the permanence of conservation covenants. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12243