Technical University of Berlin (Germany) and Federal Environmental Foundation - Environmental Assessment & Planning Research Group

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The National Nature Heritage Network
Initiative Description and Primary Objectives 

The National Nature Heritage Network is a newly formed umbrella organization for land-owning conservation organizations in Germany.

Key Academic Disciplines 

Nature Conservation

Environmental Planning

Key Partner Organizations and Individuals 

Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin)

Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt, DBU)

German League for Nature, Animal Protection and Environment (Deutscher Naturschutzring, DNR)

Initiative History and Champions 

Under the supervision of professors Johann Köppel and Johannes Küchler, PhD Student Tilmann Disselhoff is working on his dissertation about Voluntary Instruments for Nature Conservation, using the US Land Trust Movement as a case study.

His work has enabled Mr. Disselhoff to transfer knowledge from the US to the nascent private land conservation movement in Germany. Because of his experience with the US land trust movement, Mr. Disselhoff has been hired by the Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU), the biggest owner of conservation land in Germany, to help create a national network of land-owning conservation organizations.

At a recent conference organized by the DBU in October 2012, about 70 German conservation and environmental groups have formed the “National Natural Heritage Network” – the German equivalent of the Land Trust Alliance. It is hoped that this umbrella organization of all land-owning conservation organizations in Germany will act as a catalyst fostering further growth of private land conservation.

Distinctiveness and Strategic Significance of the Initiative 

While private land acquisition has been a vital part of nature conservation in Germany for centuries (probably the first natural site saved by purchase was the “Drachenfels”, a mountain along the Rhine which was bought for permanent conservation in 1836), the area of privately saved land has grown considerably in the last decade. The main reason for this expansion was the decision of the federal government in 2005 to transfer 125,000 ha of land formerly owned by the military and the German Democratic Republic to regional conservation agencies and private environmental foundations. This collection of properties, called National Natural Heritage (“Nationales Naturerbe”), is dedicated to nature conservation in perpetuity. Depending on the land use and habitat type, conservation strategies may entail natural succession and the return to wilderness or traditional land management practices (extensive grazing etc.).

Although the transfer in ownership of the properties belonging to the National Natural Heritage is still ongoing, its effects on the institutional landscape of nature conservation in Germany can already be felt. The comparatively large amount of land suddenly available to conservation organizations has prompted the establishment of a number of new private institutions (foundations, associations and the like) dedicated to the acquisition and permanent protection of land. We can hence speak of a wave of land trust-like organizations being formed in Germany or the beginning of a German land trust movement.

The most important players involved in the establishment of the National Natural Heritage are already quite well connected. A working group of the German Nature Conservation Ring (“Deutscher Naturschutzring” - DNR), the umbrella organization of German environmental groups, has coordinated the political lobbying and other efforts connected to the transfer of the National Natural Heritage. However, the DNR strategy group consists only of about 10 organizations. Other charitable or public institutions owning land dedicated to conservation purposes do not form part of this group. No other established network of land-owning conservation organizations exists in Germany.

This lack of coordination among conservation landowners is partly due to the decentralized political structure of Germany. Nature conservation mainly falls into the competence of the states (“Länder”), which leads to a highly heterogenic implementation of conservation law and hence land saving policies. For similar historic reasons, Germans have always taken a rather regional perspective on their natural heritage, with only a few sites being known to a broad national audience and thus contributing to the national identity. However, research shows that at least 400,000 ha of nature conservation land in Germany are owned by about 100 public agencies or charitable organizations (land trusts). This is more land than the English National Trust owns (250,000 ha.). Despite this large acreage, the organizations owning conservation land do not consider themselves part of a bigger movement with similar interests and objectives.

In this light, the German Federal Environmental Foundation (“Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt” - DBU), which has been the biggest recipient of National Natural Heritage properties (60,000 ha), has conducted a series of meetings aimed at improving the information exchange between owners of nature conservation land. A national congress organized by the BDU and other environmental groups in October 2012 established the “National Nature Heritage Network”, an official umbrella organization similar to the US Land Trust Alliance. While this initiative is mostly welcomed, some conservation organizations have voiced their concern about the creation of a new umbrella organization, fearing that it will create unwanted competition for donations and public funding. Therefore, a crucial question will be how to design the new network so all of its members can exert adequate influence over its activities and institutional development. In this light, the transfer of experiences gained in the US will hopefully help avoid mistakes made in the early years of the Land Trust Alliance and build on the successful strategic and organizational decisions made in the course of the LTA’s history.

Measurable Effectiveness of the Initiative 

Up to this point, the newly formed National Nature Heritage Network has 37 members who together own about 240,000 ha of conservation land. This makes the network one of the biggest representatives of land-owning conservation organizations in Europe.

Transferability of the Initiative 

The establishment of networks of land-owning conservation entities is a global phenomenon. Similar initiatives are ongoing in all South American countries, Australia and other EU member states.

Most modern nature conservation tools focus on excluding particular pieces of land from regular land use patterns (segregative approach). One important aspect of this strategy is that it can be implemented not only through regulatory means by public agencies (land use planning, designation of conservation areas etc.), but also through voluntary contractual agreements between private parties. The latter has been a core strategy of the modern nature conservation movement in the USA, ever since its emergence in the late 19th century. US nature conservation organizations have aimed at reaching their objectives, such as the protection of endangered species or habitats, by acquiring the properties relevant for the survival of the targeted species/habitat. This approach is frequently called “saving land”.

In Europe, public authorities have played a more central role for nature conservation. In most EU countries, regulatory instruments are widely accepted tools for saving land. However, the future of public nature conservation in the EU is bleak. Public sector debt increasingly restricts the capacity of environmental agencies. The current swing towards austerity of most EU governments gives reason to fear that even past public conservation achievements will come under scrutiny. In this light, private efforts will continue to play an increasingly crucial role for nature conservation in Europe as well, with private actors stepping in for shortcoming of government agencies.

Against this background, there are important lessons to be learnt from the American experience with private approaches to saving land. How can regulatory and contractual instruments best complement each other? What advantages can we expect from transferring public duties to private actors? What are the risks and disadvantages associated with this transition? Will the result meet the expectations?

An analysis of the US-American land trust movement can provide answers to some of these questions. Ever since the designation of the first national parks in the second half of the 19th century, the USA has been a global pioneer and role model in the fields of nature conservation and the protection of land. At the same time, a particular type of conservation organization devoted exclusively to private land conservation emerged in the US: the land trust. Land trusts are predominantly privately organized associations that save land for conservation purposes through purchase, lease, gift or similar contractual arrangements. The most famous land trust, The Nature Conservancy, has saved about 6.9 Mio ha of land in the US so far. It is now the biggest private land owner in North America.

Apart from The Nature Conservancy and a handful of national heavyweights, there is a broad basis of local and regional land trusts in the US. This grassroots form of civil engagement for nature conservation has grown impressively in the last 30 years. There are more than 1.700 land trusts in the US today. Despite its grassroots character, the land trust movement is highly professional, well connected and possesses a powerful umbrella organization, the Land Trust Alliance. This has enabled the movement to establish effective tools for knowledge transfer, harmonize political lobbying efforts, introduce quality standards and to develop coordinated PR campaigns.

Given the prominent role of the land trust movement in American nature conservation, it is surprising to find that until now the movement has largely been ignored in Europe. This is particularly regrettable, because – as I assume – the increasing significance of the land trust movement for US nature conservation of the last 30 years could anticipate similar developments in the rest of the world, as it has been the case in other times of the history of American nature conservation. If the necessary prerequisites are met in other countries, the US land trust movement could become a role model for similar initiatives worldwide. On the other hand, the surge of private nature conservation in the US has gone hand in hand with drastic drives for deregulation in the public sector, raising questions about the political legitimacy of transferring public duties to private actors, the democratic control of their activities and – more fundamentally – the social responsibility of private property.

Against this background, Mr. Disselhoff’s PhD project seeks to identify the key factors that have determined the success of private land conservation in the US.  By looking critically at the history of the US land trust movement, it addresses the question what European nature conservationists can learn from their American colleagues in terms of private land conservation. From a practitioner’s perspective, this work tries to provide indications for a successful development of a land trust movement in Germany and elsewhere.

The Initiative’s Ability to Endure 

The National Nature Heritage Network is designed as an institution providing continuous support to its members. Its long-term existence will depend upon its usefulness to its member organizations.

Engagement Strategies 

The National Nature Heritage Network is currently actively addressing new potential members. The network is growing fast. New members are admitted every week. In the mid-term, a leveling off in terms of new members is expected, with strategies shifting to passive recruitment.

Other stakeholders in the nature conservation arena are actively addressed by the network as well. Ties to other networks and umbrella organizations both within and outside Germany are being formed.