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When Sustenance Becomes a Pollutant: California Aims to Steer Wasted Food from Landfills

Carolyn P. Rice
May 28 2019

Forty percent of food produced for consumption never gets eaten, instead filling landfills and releasing greenhouse gases. With a recent law, California aims to drastically reduce the amount of food that ends up in the ground.

Byxbee Park in Palo Alto, by Igor Krivokon via Wikimedia Commons

The Bread Shall Rise Again Palo Alto’s Byxbee Park was formed from a onetime landfill. The pipes seen here are used to collect methane, which is captured under an impermeable layer and used to generate energy. The gas emanates from organic materials buried in the dump years ago. Igor Krivokon via Wikimedia Commons
 

By Carolyn P. Rice

A bruised apple. A broccoli stem. A jar of tomato sauce with a March 1, 2019 expiration date – all destined for the dumpster.

Consumers and retailers in the United States send 52 million tons of food to landfills each year, according to an analysis by ReFED, an anti-waste nonprofit organization. This doesn’t include 11 million tons of food that farmers and processors can’t sell. The 63 million tons of food trashed represents one fifth of all the food produced. Add to that food that is sold as animal feed, turned into compost, or otherwise “recycled,” and 40 percent of the food produced to be eaten never is.

Food waste statistics

The bill for this waste is huge. Those 52 million tons of food cost more than $200 billion to grow and move, according to ReFED. Decaying in the landfill, the waste produces greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from 23 million cars each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Half the gas that seeps out of landfills is methane, the same gas emitted by cows and natural gas. Methane, like carbon dioxide, warms the planet, but more potently, although it does not last as long. The EPA estimates that landfills released one sixth of the country’s methane emissions in 2016.

Waste only recently became an environmental issue. In times past, avoiding waste showed thriftiness. In the postwar era, advances in agricultural technology encouraged farms to overproduce. Abundance made frugality less relevant as food became cheaper. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that food prices dropped steadily until the early 2000s; they are now rising. Still, American households spend 10 percent of their incomes on food, far less than in less wealthy nations.

Waste makes a statement. Not only does it squander resources, it also shows the cavalier attitude of the well-fed. The USDA reports one in ten Americans do not have enough good food.

California, which leads the nation in agricultural production, is the only western state with a food-waste management program.

Regulations to curb waste sprang up late in the last century. In 2015, the USDA and EPA announced a nonbinding goal of 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030. In 2016, though, California raised the stakes by passing the Short-Lived Climate Pollutants Act to reduce methane emissions. By 2025, the amount of organic waste that enters landfills must be reduced by 75 percent from 2014 levels. California, which leads the nation in agricultural production, is the only western state with a food-waste management program.

These state and federal goals recognize the importance of reducing waste, but are less specific on how to do it. Waste happens at many points from farm to fork, which means that there are many opportunities for intervention, and no all-encompassing solutions. Fresh food faces challenges ranging from weather, to time, to aesthetic standards, to human habits. A National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video illustrates the many opportunities for waste by following the journey of a single strawberry.

Wasting Food Is Easier and Cheaper Than Preventing Waste

Curbside recyclingBill Lane Center for the American West

“We live in a world where not only is food cheap, but incomes are high,” said Marc Bellemare, Northrop Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. “It’s easy to waste food,” he said, even though consumers “know that wasting food is bad.”

Given the choice between eating potentially spoiled food and putting it in the trash, many consumers choose the trash. “Sell-by,” “best-by,” and “best before” guidelines carry authority; consumers will throw out edible food because its sell-by date has passed. However, these labels are not federally regulated and have no consistent meaning, according to a report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the NRDC. One suggestion in a ReFED report: do away with these dates, which do more harm than good.

Another issue sprouts at the intersection of the food producer, the retail seller, and the consumer: aesthetics. Grocery stores have appearance standards for “quality” produce and will reject unusually sized or shaped (but edible) fruit and vegetables. “The way the chain stores and grocers operate, they want perfect-looking fruit to sell, which is perfectly understandable,” said Paul Wilson, a pear grower with Rivermaid Trading Company.

Not all food that farmers grow meets these standards, and it costs money to pick, ship, and store “off-grade” produce. It is often more cost-effective to leave off-grade produce on the field, according to Chris Drew, Vice President of Operations for Ocean Mist Farms, than to harvest and store it, only to have it rejected. If farmers till it back into the soil, it acts like fertilizer.

Ugly produce that arrives at a grocery store might be given away. “Say we get a large shipment of strawberries that doesn’t meet our quality standards, we would donate that whole package to the food bank,” said Diego Romero, Communications Manager for Sprouts Farmers Market, a national grocery chain.

For farms and grocers, getting food to places that won’t waste it – be it a compost facility or a food bank – can be costly, as fresh food has a high water content, making it heavy.

Chart: Food donations on the rise

Food banks, which collect and distribute food to people who need it, often cover transportation and storage costs in return for free produce. Even so, some grocery stores do not have the capability to organize donations. “While most employees are eager to help, I often hear ‘I don’t have time for that,’” Shelby Senna, Food Sourcing Representative for Second Harvest Food Bank, wrote in an email.

Even food banks can’t serve everything they receive. “No matter how much we try to avoid waste, there’s always going to be bruised apples,” said Cat Cvengros, Vice President of Marketing and Development at Second Harvest. Second Harvest sends damaged produce to become animal feed, as does Sprouts.

Comparing Food Waste Reduction Methods

The nonprofit ReFED, which draws support from foundations and industry sources, has explored a number of different practices that could reduce the amount of food that ends up uneaten and in landfills.

For ReFED’s description of each of these practices, hover over or tap on the? icons below. Click the headers to sort.
 


Click to view in a new window.

Source: ReFED

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Does Avoiding Waste Mean Ignoring Those in Need?

Farmers sell substandard or surplus produce at a discount to processors such as canneries and baby food companies. Doing so isn’t lucrative, given the costs to harvest and ship it. If they have a local food bank that can come pick up the produce, many farmers choose to donate. “We want as much of this food to go to good use as possible,” said Wilson, of Rivermaid Trading Company.

A startup company, Imperfect Produce, aims to be a new destination for this food. Founded in 2015, Imperfect Produce aims to reduce waste by buying “ugly” and surplus produce from farmers and deliver it to individual subscribers. “You’ve got to just look at [Imperfect Produce] like any other customer that takes off-grade fruit, and there are a lot of them,” said Wilson.

Is there enough to go around? Some say no. Phat Beets Produce, a Berkeley-based community food justice organization, authored an op-ed that accused Imperfect Produce of profiting at the expense of the needy: “The reality is that this produce would have otherwise gone to food banks, to be redistributed for free.”

Imperfect Produce CEO Ben Simon responded that his company buys only a small portion of farmers' off-grade products – effectively arguing that there is plenty for all. Wilson concurs. “I really think there’s enough food out there for everybody,” he said.

The Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose

The Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose  Carolyn P. Rice
 

Getting Food to People in Silicon Valley, Where Hunger is Hidden

The recent California legislation requires that 20 percent of unsold but edible food be diverted to the hungry. “Food rescue” is what food banks have done since their inception in the 1960s; now, laws like this one formalize donations.

You can make an assumption that someone who is homeless is probably hungry. However, at Second Harvest, the majority of people we serve are in fact housed and probably working.”

“The food rescue program is really important to us because we’re not only keeping food out of the landfills, we’re also helping feed people in our local communities,” said Romero, of Sprouts.

“Everyone knows Silicon Valley for having so much wealth and success, and yet we are serving more people at Second Harvest Food Bank since we have since the recession,” said Cvengros. Second Harvest Food Bank, a member of the Feeding America network and the California Association of Food Banks, serves one in ten people who live in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. “We’re not even close to meeting the need,” she added.

Why? “A lot of people are embarrassed,” said a longtime client of the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto, who asked to be referred to as Pety. But she said she did not feel that way when her sister first took her there. And, she encourages others to come: “I send everybody here.”

Food banks and public resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program “have, over decades, become a fact of life in America,” said Garrett Broad, an assistant professor of communication at Fordham University.

In Silicon Valley, hunger can be hard to see. “You can make an assumption that someone who is homeless is probably hungry,” said Cvengros. “However, at Second Harvest, the majority of people we serve are in fact housed and probably working.”

Charlotte Brown, the resource and volunteer coordinator for the Ecumenical Hunger Program, said, “The majority of our clients work two or three jobs because it’s so incredibly expensive to work in the Bay Area.” She went on to say, “In all candor, I think most of us are about a minute from changing sides of the desk.”

 

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...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Danielle Nguyen and Carolyn P. Rice

Western States Stepping Up Their Monitoring and Regulating of PFAS, chemicals that exist in furniture, firefighting foam, waterproof makeup and clothing, and many other items. Polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals are take a long time to break down in the environment, and studies link exposure to higher rates of kidney and testicular cancer. In the west, PFAS contamination has been confirmed in water supplies in ten western and far western states. More states are going to court to fight back; New Mexico has sued the Air Force for PFAS groundwater contamination at two bases and more state lawsuits against manufacturers are being filed. “I think you're going to see a waterfall effect. You're going to see more states doing that,” said Matthew Schroeder, a lawyer who advises companies on PFAS-related legal risks. High Country News E&E News 

Permian Basin Oil Boom Has Health Consequences for residents of southeastern New Mexico, where life has become noisy and dangerous. Oil field trucks fling projectiles towards houses, methane flares can be seen to the east and south, and birds have been seen falling out of the sky. Families are experiencing headaches, blisters, and daily nosebleeds. Individual homes have has new wells pop up in every directions. New Mexico Political Report High Country News

California Utilities Plan Blackouts to Prevent Against Wildfires, prompting many residents to install solar in the homes. This change has pushed homeowners to shrink their environmental footprints and help to accelerate California’s transition to a carbon-free grid by 2045. But while the cost of solar panels and batteries has dropped in the past decade, they still remain unaffordable for most, leaving many residents facing sporadic outages. Washington Post

Interior Secretary Visited Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and in the wake of the visit the department deferred oil and gas leases within a 10-mile zone surrounding the park for one year. David Bernhardt accompanied Senator Martin Heinrich and tribal leaders to visit Chaco Canyon on May 28, 2019. The deferral will give Congress time to vote on the Chaco Culture Heritage Area Protection Act that Senators Heinrich and Udall introduced earlier this year. Farmington Daily Times

Oil and Gas Industry Looks to Recycle Wastewater, as energy companies have created 210 billion gallons of wastewater between 2005 and 2014. Fracking blasts large amounts of water into the earth to crack open underground rock formations that hold oil and gas. Each barrel of oil yields half a barrel of wastewater, and one fracked well could use up to 6 million gallons of water. Companies drill thousands of wells annually. There has been a recent push to reuse wastewater instead of disposing of it by injecting it back into the ground. Carlsbad Current Argus

Articles Worth Reading: May 20, 2019

California Announces Ban on Chlorpyrifos, a toxic pesticide that affects child brain development. California, one of the nation’s largest agricultural states and the nation’s top chlorpyrifos consumer, uses the pesticide on crops such as oranges, grapes, and almonds. Governor Newsom proposed $5.7 million to support the transition to alternatives. The ban follows similar legislation in Hawaii, New York, Oregon, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Washington Post

Report Shows Hazardous Air Quality in 96% of National Parks, with some of the most popular parks such as Joshua Tree, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, and Mojave being the worst offenders. The study by the National Parks Conservation Association showed that ozone levels in these parks were considered dangerous for up to two months. Air pollution has a lasting impact on visitor and park health, and contributes to climate change. Over the last two decades, air pollution in national parks has been comparable that of the 20 largest cities in the United States. The Guardian

Plans for Arizona Mine Spark Controversy as its construction was approved by the Trump administration. Conservation groups are standing together to sue the federal government to block construction. They claim that the proposed $1.9 billion Rosemont copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains would destroy jaguar habitats. Three Native American tribes are also objecting to the approval of the project, arguing that construction would harm remnants of sacred sites. This would be the third-biggest copper mine in the country. Arizona Republic

Supreme Court Rules Treaty Lets Crow Tribal Members Hunt on Public Lands, reversing the decision of Wyoming courts that fined Clayvin Herrera for illegally killing an elk in the Bighorn National Forest. The decision upheld the validity of an 1868 treaty that granted tribal members “the right to hunt on occupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon.” Wyoming had argued the treaty was voided by the declaration of Wyoming’s statehood in 1890 and the creation of the national forest in 1897. They argued “Wyoming statehood was not just a legal event, it was a recognition the once wild frontier was no more. And the Crow Tribe understood that its hunting right had ended.” The Supreme Court disagreed. Casper Star-Tribune

Treaties Secure Environmental Protections for Tribal Nations such as the Tulalip Tribe in Washington State. Climate change, which is eroding shorelines and affecting water in the Puget Sound, is a daily fight for the tribe. Nationwide, treaty rights have been the foundation for tribes securing major land and water victories over the past couple decades. Tribes have the potential to call the United States government to action regarding addressing climate change. High Country News NPR

The Energy Department is Actively Working to Save Montana’s Colstrip Power Plant, or its fossil energy chief told the state’s two senators. Colstrip, located east of Billings, is one of a grow-ing number of coal plants that are facing closure thanks to the rise of national gas and renewables and increasing customer aversion to coal-fired energy. The huge 2,094-megawatt plant has been on the ropes economically, but the Energy Department is investigating if technology to capture carbon-dioxide emissions could prove useful to enhancing recovery of oil in nearby oil fields. Utility Dive

Articles Worth Reading: May 6, 2019

California’s Latest Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change is carbon farming, the process of absorbing carbon from the air and moving it to be stored in the soil. Through the Healthy Soils initiative, now in its third year, farmers can receive grants to grow plants on their farms that soak up carbon dioxide. A report found that farms and forests could absorb up to 20 percent of the state’s emissions. KQED

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The Blackfeet Nation Hopes to Open National Park in northwestern Montana to educate tourists about the story of their tribe. The Nation, which once owned half of Glacier National Park, sold the land to the federal government in the late 1800s. Members of the Blackfeet Nation hope to reassert the tribe’s place in the region’s history, protect the reservation’s natural resources, and provide new opportunities for indigenous people to benefit from the tourism economy. High Country News

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Articles Worth Reading: April 22, 2019

A Divided Senate Confirmed David Bernhardt as Interior Department Secretary by a 56-41 vote on April 11. Three Democrats split from their party to join all voting Republicans in supporting the Colorado native and former lobbyist. Over the years, in his private sector experience, Bernhardt has represented a variety of clients including California’s Westlands Water District and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. E&E News

Judge Rules Environmental Analysis Required Before Ending Coal Mining Ban on public lands. A federal district judge in Montana said that the Interior Department was wrong to overturn the Obama-era ban on coal leasing without doing any sort of environmental review. The ruling did not, however, reinstate the ban or prescribe exactly how the current Interior Department must conduct its environmental review. The New York Times

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A Black Market for Eagle Feathers is being driven by Native American demand. The feathers, which are believed to bring well-being and prosperity, have grown in demand due to the development of modern ceremonial traditions such as the powwow and the Native American church. With poaching rampant on the reservations, federal laws have tried to protect eagles by permitting the building of aviaries by tribes for religious practices. Audubon Society

Wild Horses Find Homes After Controversial Roundup last fall, which some believed would end in the horses being sold to Mexico for food. Out of 261 wild horses rounded up from the Modoc Plateau and moved to corrals in Modoc County, all but 30 have been placed in homes. After the roundup, they were housed over the winter in the Double Devil Wild Horse Corral and were fed and cared for by the Forest Service and volunteers. San Francisco Chronicle

Articles Worth Reading: April 9, 2019

California’s High Water Puts Oroville Dam’s Repaired Spillway to Use for the first time since the crisis that caused an evacuation. In 2017, storms caused the spillway to break apart and flood; nearly 200,000 people were forced to flee. Repairs cost $1.1 billion, and this is the first time since those renovations that excess water was drained into the spillway. Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Measurements of the Health Impacts from Oil and Natural Gas Extraction May Be Indequate, A UCLA study reviewed three dozen journal articles published over the past six years and found a positive correlation between individuals’ poor health and their proximity to fossil fuel extraction operations. High levels of suspected carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, and ethyl-benzene have been measured at oil and natural gas sites. Science Daily

California Adopts New Wetland Protections to Counteract Federal Rollback. A new state policy plan will counteract the proposed rollbacks. The state regulation establishes protections for human activity, preventing some areas from being paved over or plowed. California’s waterways, 90 percent of which have been lost to human sprawl, are important for drinking water, flood protection, groundwater recharge and wildlife. San Francisco Chronicle

Trout Lovers Trek To the Río Grande to See Juvenile Cutthroat Added to the river at Questa’s Cutthroat Fish Festival. Relocating cutthroat to expand their populations has become an annual tradition in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Cerro, New Mexico. Conservationists have worked for decades to increase the native cutthroat population in northern New Mexico. Almost 10,000 trout were relocated during this year’s event. Taos News

More Mexican Gray Wolves Roam the Southwest now than at any time since the Fish and Wildlife Service began protecting them more than two decades ago. The population has jumped about 12 percent since its brink of extinction in the early 2000s. Mexican gray wolves are the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America, with a population of at least 131 in New Mexico and Arizona combined. E&E News

Fish Numbers Plummet As Pumping and Invasive Clams Upend the Food Web in the San Francisco estuary, a new study from the University of California, Davis, reveals. Microscopic algae called phytoplankton are at the base of the food web (phytoplankton are food for zooplankton, which are food for fish). Clams, brought in the holds of oceangoing vessels, and freshwater pumping by California’s two major water delivery projects have cut phytoplankton by 97 percent from the late 1960s, prompting a similar dramatic drop in the number of fish. Daily Democrat

Articles Worth Reading: March 26, 2019

New Mexico Governor Signs Law Mandating the State’s Energy Supply Be Carbon-Free by 2045; a bold move that puts the state in the forefront of the cities and states that have passed legislation to fight climate change. The law allows for state bonds to provide support for the state’s major utility to shut down the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in the Four Corners area and creates funds for support and retraining of workers at the plant. It also mandates new apprenticeships so New Mexico workers can enter the clean-energy workplaces of the future. Albuquerque Journal

The San Joaquin Valley Aquifer Lost Five Percent of Its Carrying Capacity in the first two decades of the 21st century, thanks to severe droughts and the resulting over-pumping, according to new research from Arizona State University. Groundwater in aquifers accumulates in “pore spaces” between rocks and grains of sand. The elasticity of these pores, which close when water is withdrawn, means they usually rebound when groundwater is recharged. But if too much is withdrawn and the pore spaces close too far, their elasticity is gone and the aquifer’s capacity shrinks irreversibly. American Geophysical Union

The Colorado Drought Contingency Plan Is Now Before Congress, as representatives of all seven Colorado River states, including California, ended their arguments and agreed on a final version. Bypassed were the demands of the Imperial Irrigation District for $200 million in federal funds to clean up the fetid and deteriorating Salton Sea. Successive droughts have meant that the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people and 7,812 square miles of farmland, needed new agreements for dividing water in times of shortage. After California’s Colorado River Board, by an 8-to-1 vote, provided the final state’s approval, state representatives met in Phoenix with a top federal water official and sent a letter to Congress seeking its approval. The plan sets up new formulas for water use if Lake Mead drops below a crucial level during a prolonged drought. Desert Sun Salt Lake Tribune

Mining, Drilling and Grazing Now Easier as the Sage Grouse Management Plan of 2015 Loses Its Bite. The old plan was a cooperative effort to ensure the birds, several hundred thousand of which live in the oil-rich rangeland of 11 western states, didn’t decline so far that endangered species protections would kick in. The old program set out special “focal areas” requiring protections for the chicken-sized, ground-nesting birds; these are now gone. Cattlemen felt the 2015 requirements were too rigid and applied at too fine a scale; the 2015 rules also required that energy leasing in some areas be prioritized away from areas best suited to the grouse. A Center For Western Priorities representative said, the changes mean “the administration will drive the sage grouse closer to an endangered species listing.” Associated Press New York Times Wyoming Public Media Western Livestock Journal

The Navajo Generating Station’s Last Possible Savior Won’t Save It. By a 9-to-11 vote, a committee of the Navajo Nation Council rejected a plan for a tribal firm, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, to explore buying the power plant and the coal mine that supplies it. For the last couple of years, NGS owners had pulled out or signaled they wanted to. The tribal enterprise wanted to save hundreds of jobs held by Navajos. But the barriers to this solution included a demand by the power plant’s owners for a cap on the liability for cleanup, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Seth Damon, the council’s speaker, said the “Navajo Nation Council signaled that it is time for change. In order to develop a healthy and diverse economy that does not overly rely on any particular industry, the … council will advance new and innovative development initiatives.” Indian Country Today

Articles Worth Reading: March 11, 2019

New Restrictions on Colorado River Withdrawals in Dry Times Are Close, but the federal Bureau of Reclamation says, in effect, “close only counts in the game of horseshoes.” The Arizona state legislature met the bureau’s deadline as it agreed to the drought contingency plan formulated by all three states in the river’s lower basin, but the final deals with Native tribes and with California’s Imperial Irrigation District aren’t done yet. The arguments go on. Cronkite News

Native Trout Are Making a Comeback in Colorado, but It’s Taken Decades. As the West was colonized, so were its streams; native fish suffered as non-native ones were introduced. The native greenback cutthroat trout was mistakenly declared extinct in 1937, but its history turns out to be much more complicated. Today, the subspecies survives, but barely, and scientists do not agree on a solution for the fish’s future. Biographic

Ranchers in Montana Want Consumers to Know Where Beef Comes From. The U.S. imports roughly 10 percent of its beef -- from countries like Canada, Argentina and Uruguay -- but it doesn’t have to be labeled as such. Country of origin labeling, Montana ranchers argue, will help consumers make more informed choices--and think it will be good for business. If passed, a bill in the Montana State Senate would require this labeling, as well as prohibit labeling as “meat” the cell-based meat now grown in vitro in laboratories. That decision which could be detrimental to this nascent industry. Civil Eats

Sustainable Development and Gentrification Do Not Have to Go Hand in Hand. An affordable housing project in an industrial, low-income neighborhood of Portland could show the country how green infrastructure can help alleviate poverty and keep communities intact. This project includes weatherization of mobile homes and sustainable landscaping. High Country News

We Need Maps to Comprehend the Scale of the Grand Canyon. Be careful, though–some maps are more attractive than they are accurate. As the iconic national park’s 100th anniversary approaches, listen to the Science Friday podcast explore the history of Western mapmaking through the lens of the maps of the Grand Canyon. Science Friday

Art Installations Thrive in the Coachella Valley. Desert X, a biennial art exhibit, opened this past weekend. It showcases art in mediums that range from fabric to cell phone, all to connect people with the valley and its human history. Explore some of the installations in this photo gallery. The Desert Sun

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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