new study published in Environmental Research Letters shows striking disparities in the distribution of conserved land across multiple dimensions of social marginalization in New England – and creates a tool to help address these inequities in conservation.

The Harvard Forest and Amherst College researchers found that communities in the lowest income bracket, and communities with the highest proportions of people of color, have access to only about half as much protected land near where they live. These disparities persist across urban, suburban, and rural communities, and across decades.

But Harvard Forest authors Lucy Lee and Jonathan Thompson – with colleagues Neenah Estrella-Luna of Boston, and Kate Sims and Margot Lurie (’21) of Amherst College – didn’t stop at identifying the inequities in conservation. They also created tools that will be part of the solution.

First, they looked at lands that rank highly with conventional conservation criteria – such as wildlife habitat, drinking water, and carbon sequestration – and mapped their relationship with lands that rank highly for human environmental justice criteria – including communities with low income, high percentages of people of color, and high percentages of English language learners. They found that the two don’t tend to overlap.

They created a new prioritization system to help state agencies and conservation organizations identify specific opportunities for future conservation based on environmental justice criteria, and built a free, online mapping tool to highlight these opportunities on the landscape. 

Although their analysis focused on conservation solutions for currently undeveloped land, they also pointed to the importance of restoring existing developed land, including improving forest canopy in marginalized communities, and conservation partnerships that can increase access to existing open space.