Neoliberal Land Conservation and Social Justice
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Private land conservation programs in North America tend to convey the greatest benefits to those who are already relatively well off in terms of land, wealth, and quality of life. For example, conservation easements — the fastest growing method of land protection in the United States — reward landowners with cash payments and tax breaks. At the same time, these programs tend to focus protected land in areas with low population densities. These benign sounding programs can hamper social services by reducing tax revenues and preventing the development of socially desirable amenities like affordable housing. This article describes the emergence of conservation easements as a land protection mechanism, situating it within the worldwide trend of neoliberal conservation and emergence of new environmental governance systems dominated by private actors. Specifically, this article examines the social justice concerns of conservation easements including questionable use of public funding, inequitable distribution of environmental amenities, and concerns about democracy and accountability. Rethinking conservation easement placement, use, and enforcement along with reducing or removing the tax breaks associated with them would alleviate, but not erase, some of the environmental justice concerns.