Natural Areas Goal
Human life relies on the ecological services only nature can provide. Ecosystems filter air and water, provide material resources and food, fix and cycle nutrients through the biosphere, regulate climate, and support wildlife. When human activity harms the health of ecosystems it also diminishes the ability of these ecosystems to perform these vital services that even cities depend upon. The designation of conservation areas within cities, therefore, can help protect the integrity of these services and improve the quality of urban life.
Fragmenting or reducing habitat area, contaminating waterways, polluting the air, and over-extracting resources are some of the ways human beings affect the natural environment and threaten ecosystems. A major challenge to urban conservation efforts is simply identifying land to be off-limits to development. Only if it is sufficiently large can a natural area be effective in supporting biodiversity. Here, biodiversity refers both to the diversity of different types of species as well as to the genetic diversity within a species population. A population is not viable after losing too much of its natural, genetic variation.
Fortunately a variety of planning tools exist to secure land for conservation. A municipality may choose to address protection of conservation areas through direct acquisition, purchase of development rights or transfer of development rights programs, conservation easements, and zoning. Direct purchase from the owner is a straightforward way for a city to acquire land. Purchase of development rights programs, as the name suggests, allow municipalities to acquire development rights from landowners in designated areas. Transfer of development rights allow for movement of development rights between regions within a municipality. Conservation easements allow landowners to retain ownership while giving up development rights in exchange for tax breaks. Finally, zoning is an inexpensive way to protect conservation areas, and it can be used to protect the conservation areas themselves or buffers around the conservation areas. Any of these strategies may be incorporated in a municipality's comprehensive plan.
Madison boasts 14 conservation parks and the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. They were established with the intention not just of protecting ecological services, but for providing recreational and educational opportunities for people. Nevertheless, these conservation areas represent only a small percentage of the City's total open space. Identifying new opportunities for conservation will be a challenging but worthwhile undertaking. For inspiration, Madison need only look to its own, proud history of environmentalism. John Muir attended the University in the 1860s before going on to shape the country's national park system and found the Sierra Club. Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Alamanac, served on the University faculty and was instrumental in establishing the Arboretum in the 1930s. In 1960 Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson, who later founded the tradition of Earth Day in the U.S., asked Phil Lewis to inventory the state's significant scenic and recreation areas. The result of these efforts is a greenway system that today links Madison to the surrounding countryside. These examples from Madison's own history highlight conservation initiatives that may have been considered innovative and bold when they were first proposed, but whose legacy continues to benefit the City today.