Conservation Development

By Reed Noss

Not all conservation objectives can be met on public lands reserved as open space for conservation or other purposes – there simply will not be enough of such lands. Given escalating land values, conservationists cannot compete with the larger and richer real estate development industry.

Recognizing the enormous development pressures in many parts of the United States and the world, the shortage of funds for land acquisition, and the general weakness of land-use regulations, conservationists have shown increasing interest in alternative ways of protecting biodiversity, including formal land protection that results directly from development.

Conservation development refers to an approach that combines new residential construction and land protection and generates revenue while accomplishing conservation goals. Although often discussed in terms of clustered, high-density housing – as opposed to sprawl – conservation development can include many other types of projects, depending on their particular conservation goals and outcomes. Thus, conservation buyer and limited development projects often qualify as conservation development projects, whereas master planned communities and cluster developments may or may not qualify, depending on the conservation benefits they provide (Milder 2007).

A review of 10 conservation and limited development projects in the eastern United States showed that they greatly outperformed conventional subdivisions and baseline scenarios, in terms of protecting biodiversity and associated ecosystem functions (Milder et al. 2008). Conservation development projects therefore offer an attractive alternative to conventional conservation or conventional development projects, particularly where the funds for land acquisition or other forms of protection from development are not available. 

Mechanisms and incentives for conserving land and biodiversity while pursuing economic development vary greatly country by country, state by state, and even county by county. An example of legislation that has fostered conservation development, with variable success but generally positively, is California’s Natural Community Conservation Planning Act (NCCP). Coupled with the Habitat Conservation Planning (HCP) provision of Section 10(A) of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, NCCP -- which is significantly stronger than Section 10(A) with respect to biodiversity conservation -- has limited the impacts of development and, in some cases, seems to be leading to substantial conservation outcomes in several regions of California.

Suggested Readings

Milder, J.C. 2007. A framework for understanding conservation development and its ecological implications. BioScience 57:757-768.

Milder, J.C., J.P. Lassoie, and BL. Bedford. 2008. Conserving biodiversity and ecosystem function through limited development: an empirical evaluation. Conservation Biology 22:70-79.


Reed Noss, the Davis-Shine Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Central Florida, has been one of the lead voices in conservation biology for nearly three decades. He has served as President of the Society for Conservation Biology, Editor-in-Chief of its journal, Conservation Biology, and was a co-founder of the Wildlands Project.

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