Conservation easements have a long history as an effective land protection tool in the United States.
Could easements now change conservation in the Pacific?
The small, quiet island of Kosrae State in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is on the verge of making big waves for its Pacific neighbors.
One family and state agency just recorded the first conservation easement outside of the Americas and in a form that the other Micronesian countries and the US could model.
The conservation easement, a legal tool used primarily in the US that removes all development rights, will permanently protect a portion of a rare freshwater swamp forest comprised primarily of the ka tree, Terminalia carolinensis.
The entire forest, named Yela, stands at approximately 400 acres and is the largest remaining ka forest in the world.
Two large, historic Kosraean families own Yela and the valley in which it resides. One family recognized the uniqueness of their land long ago and have been working on a way to conserve it permanently.
The Alik family approached both The Nature Conservancy and the US Forest Service a decade ago when a road was going to be built through the freshwater swamp forest which would likely lead to its demise through a change of hydrology and increased human access for development.
Together the three entities worked with the Kosraean government to explore the applicability of using a typically western legal tool for protection — a conservation easement — in Kosrae.
Once a US Trust Territory, Kosrae is one of three states that comprise the independent nation known as the Federated States of Micronesia. Its legal system is based on the US system which facilitated Kosrae’s Attorney General’s opinion that a conservation easement is a viable option for land protection.
Typical of most island cultures, the valley has remained in the family for generations; its ownership pattern will likely continue in that manner.
The undeveloped valley has been and continues to be used for traditional harvest: eels, nuts, wild pigs and taro leaves for underground ovens or ums are gathered there. Diseased or fallen ka trees can be carved into outrigger canoes.
The Kosraean conservation easement deal is being eyed by both Micronesians and other Pacific islands because unlike the scenario where an important natural resource is protected by an outright government purchase of the land, the conservation easement model will accommodate the needs of traditional land use and generational exchange while compensating them for keeping it in its natural state.
This deal and the easement tool should help advance another groundbreaking conservation development – the Micronesia Challenge.
This historic agreement signed in 2006 by five of the jurisdictions of that region, including the FSM, set an ambitious goal to effectively conserve at least 20% of the terrestrial resources and 30% of the near-shore marine resources across Micronesia by 2020.
Those countries are making good progress on the marine resource protection effort but protection of the private, traditionally owned, terrestrial lands is more problematic.
With the first easement in place it will offer a new tool for protection. The Yela effort will advance the terrestrial goal for the FSM and pave the way for other easement deals on Kosrae, in Micronesia and across the Pacific and will do so for substantially less than it would cost those governments to purchase the land.
The Yela deal is innovative not only because it is introducing a new conservation tool to the region but it is “a new and improved” version of that tool from which the US states, who have used easements for several decades, could benefit.
Instead of the person or persons who sign the sale agreement solely benefitting from the sale proceeds, as is often the case in the US, the Alik family has invested that income into a trust fund managed by the Micronesia Conservation Trust.
Every year after a forest inspection shows the terms of the easement have been upheld, each of the families will receive interest income from the easement that will be close to an average salary on Kosrae. In addition a portion of the annual dividend will be reinvested in the principle to ensure the trust will grow with inflation.
The trust will follow the land when it changes hands. With this model, future generations and/or landowners will also directly benefit from the sale and they are rewarded annually for their commitment to protecting the conservation values of the property.
The Aliks are building both a natural and financial legacy with their innovative approach to save the last ka forest in the world and it already seems to be catching on as we’ve heard the owners of the other half of Yela want to talk.
Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.