Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Revolving Private Land to Conserve Nature

By Mat Hardy, Sarah Bekessy, James Fitzsimons & Ascelin Gordon

Buying, protecting and reselling private land can be an effective way to conserve nature, but relies upon selecting the right properties.

The acquisition of private land with significant conservation value can be a powerful way to protect important species and ecosystems. But acquisition can be expensive, particularly in areas where land values are high. An alternative to buying land and creating a conservation reserve is to enter into permanent agreements with private landholders (e.g. conservation covenants) that restrict both current and future landowners from conducting activities that would harm their land’s ecological value.

In recent years, some conservation organisations have developed an innovative approach that integrates targeted land acquisition with permanent conservation agreements, drawing on the use of a “revolving fund”. A revolving fund is a pool of money that conservation organisations can use to acquire land with high conservation value as it becomes available for purchase. The organisation then resells the land to conservation-minded owners under the condition that they enter into a permanent conservation covenant. The proceeds from the sale are then used to purchase, protect and resell additional properties, incrementally increasing the amount of protected private land. It’s a great way to buy and conserve land, where the organisation can recover costs and then go out and do it all again.

The beauty of the revolving fund approach is its potential to be self-sustaining. However, not all properties are going to be suitable, and the effectiveness of this approach requires managers to select the right properties.

In a general sense, a “good” property should possess high conservation value, be able to recover its costs, and be desirable enough to new buyers, even with the requirement of entering into a conservation covenant. If these conditions aren’t met, the revolving fund might start shrinking or be less effective in delivering worthwhile conservation outcomes.

But how do these general requirements translate into day-to-day decision-making for revolving fund managers? Which characteristics are most influential on a property’s suitability for acquisition? Managers must know what they’re doing, as almost 146,000 hectares in Australia have already been protected. But exploring these questions can allow us to identify what’s important and investigate ways to increase the effectiveness of revolving fund purchases.

In conjunction with Australian revolving fund managers, we built a Bayesian Belief Network model of the property selection decision. Bayesian Belief Networks operate on probabilistic reasoning, and provide a useful way to step through decisions such as these where there is lots of uncertainty. We then interrogated the model and used some exploratory test properties to see how it performed.

We found several key factors influencing the suitability of purchasing a property for a revolving fund. Most pertinent to managers were the threats to the property’s ecological values, the overall cost of “revolving” the property, and the options available to protect it through other means (e.g. transfer to public ownership). Also prominent was the potential for resale, which was closely linked to its amenity values (e.g. the property’s aesthetic appeal).

Together the results suggest that managers are taking a low-risk approach to property selection. Their focus appears to be on properties with high ecological value, that are unlikely to be protected through other means, and have a high likelihood that they’ll resell quickly and recover costs. This makes sense if you’re trying to keep your fund sustainable while turning over properties and protecting as much land of high-conservation value as possible.

However, exploring our results we also found that in some cases it might be worth managers extending revolving funds to higher-risk acquisitions. For example, it may be worthwhile “revolving” a property with exceptional conservation value even if it’s unlikely that all costs will be recovered, or where it might take a long time to find a willing purchaser. This could be particularly true in areas where acquisition without resale is too expensive (e.g. peri-urban areas), or where landholders are reluctant to enter into conservation agreements.

Managers clearly have a wealth of first-hand experience making the revolving fund approach work, and in this study we drew on that experience to develop guidance on property selection for those running revolving fund programs. While the exact characteristics might change from place to place, focusing on the most suitable properties will allow more effective implementation of revolving funds, and facilitate more efficient conservation of nature on private land.

Mat Hardy is a member of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). He is based at RMIT University in Melbourne. This research was carried out in collaboration with Sarah Bekessy, Ascelin Gordon and Luis Mata of RMIT University, James Fitzsimons of The Nature Conservancy, Chris Cook of Trust for Nature (Victoria), Alex Nankivell of Nature Foundation SA, and Kate Smillie of the Nature Conservation Trust of NSW (at the time of the research).