Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Yela

Kosrae is a small, mostly undeveloped island in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The 42 square mile island supports a diverse number of intact and pristine ecosystems both under and above the sea. One such ecosystem is the Yela forest and its watershed. Yela is a freshwater swamp forest just above the mangrove line that supports the last Ka (Terminalia carolinensis) forest in the world. Such forests were once found on several islands in Micronesia but due to harvest and development extensive stands of Ka have disappeared.

In 2005 the 10 families that own the Yela forest began to move in a direction to protect this unique forest for future generations. The family started by forming a conservation non-profit organization now known as the Yela Environment Landowners Authority (YELA) in 2006. YELA is now moving forward with protecting the important habitat and resource values of the forest in perpetuity with a conservation easement. Conservation easements are a legal tool in the United States that maintain property in the landowner’s possession while protecting defined ecological values. Essentially the landowner relinquishes the right to develop the property into homes, buildings, and roads forever. Only a non-profit or government entity can purchase and hold a conservation easement in the States. If the landowner sells the property, the conservation easement still encumbers or follows the land. Kosrae’s Attorney General, JD Lee, has issued a draft legal opinion stating that a conservation easement will, in fact, be valid in perpetuity in the FSM legal system. This would be the first conservation easement in the Federated States and all of Micronesia.

Property ownership on Kosrae, including the forest owned by YELA, is similar to that of other Micronesian Islands in that most lands are understood to be traditionally owned and therefore lack a legal document, or title, that describes the exact boundaries and the name(s) of the land owner(s). Without the title to describe the extent and ownership of the property a conservation easement would not be possible. Over the past year and a half YELA has worked with the Kosraean Land Survey to determine the exact property boundaries. The 35 hectare property is now under review by the Land Court and a deed is expected to be granted in the near future.

The next step in placing a conservation easement over Yela is to determine the value of the easement. To accomplish this YELA was awarded a LifeWeb grant from the Micronesia Conservation Trust. The grant engaged California real estate specialist Mike Conner from The Nature Conservancy and MAI certified appraiser Nick Captain from Guam for the assignment. The pair spent several days on Kosrae with YELA Executive Director Tholman Alik and Project Manager William William (not a typo) looking at the forest and researching land values on the island. Once the value of the easement has been determined then YELA will consider if it thinks the value is appropriate and it will either proceed towards encumbering the property with a conservation easement or it will pursue alternative avenues for conservation.

Together the Yela protection partnership (consisting of Kosrae Governor Weilbacher, Attorney General JD Lee, Kosrae Island Resource Management Authority, Kosrae Conservation & Safety Organization, USDA Forest Service, Secretariat of the Pacific, Micronesia Conservation Trust, YELA and The Nature Conservancy) are working toward: 1) placing a conservation easement over Yela therefore protecting this unique forest in perpetuity and 2) creating a new legal tool for conservation in the FSM. The project is ambitious and exciting as it has the potential to lead to greater conservation throughout Micronesia. Based on the strength and commitment of the individuals that comprise the partnership we hope to succeed.

1 comment:

Dana Lee Ling said...

Thanks for the update on the Yela valley, I did not know about conservation easements nor that such an entity would hold in perpetuity out here. Kampare o kulo!