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Public access to spatial data on private-land conservation

Adena R. Rissman, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Jessica Owley, SUNY Buffalo Law School, Buffalo, NY
Andrew W. L'Roe, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Amy Wilson Morris, The Trust for Public Land, San Francisco, CA
Chloe B Wardropper, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI


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Information is critical for environmental governance. The rise of digital mapping has the potential to advance private-land conservation by assisting with conservation planning, monitoring, evaluation, and accountability. However, privacy concerns from private landowners and the capacity of conservation entities can influence efforts to track spatial data. We examine public access to geospatial data on conserved private lands and the reasons data are available or unavailable. We conduct a qualitative comparative case study based on analysis of maps, documents, and interviews. We compare four conservation programs involving different conservation tools: conservation easements (the growing but incomplete National Conservation Easement Database), regulatory mitigation (gaps in tracking U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species habitat mitigation), contract payments (lack of spatial data on U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program due to Farm Bill restrictions), and property-tax incentives (online mapping of Wisconsin’s managed forest tax program). These cases illuminate the capacity and privacy reasons for current incomplete or inaccessible spatial data and the politics of mapping private land. If geospatial data are to contribute fully to planning, evaluation, and accountability, we recommend improving information system capacity, enhancing learning networks, and reducing legal and administrative barriers to information access, while balancing the right to information and the right to privacy.

Key words

conservation easements; cost share; environmental governance; Geographic Information Systems; land trusts; privacy; private-land conservation; tax incentive; transparency

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087