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Graduate Defense: Sarah Halperin

October 3, 2023 @ 1:30 pm - 3:30 pm

Dissertation Defense

Dissertation Information

Title: Balancing Societal Demands For Agricultural Land: Insights, Innovations, And Conservation Priorities

Program: Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

Advisor: Dr. Jodi Brandt, Geosciences and Biological Sciences

Committee Members: Dr. Matt Williamson, College of Innovation and Design; Dr. Jen Schneider, School of Public Service; Dr. Jen Pierce, Geosciences; Dr. Rebecca Som Castellano, Sociology


With an increasing global population and the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss intensifying, society faces many challenges in reconciling conflicting demands for the landscape. Covering roughly half of the land area of the United States, agricultural land is in direct competition with other land uses and will likely play an important role in addressing these important conservation challenges. In this dissertation, we used well-supported existing methodologies and principles from ecosystem services, message framing, and biodiversity conservation to create knowledge about how to better protect agricultural lands. We conducted our study in the Treasure Valley, Idaho, where the issue of agricultural land is particularly relevant owing to few current restrictions on land use and limited arable land. First, we used the Ecosystem Service framework to bolster our understanding of the problem and consequences of agricultural land loss in the context of future urban development (Chapter 1). Second, we used message framing to identify five key frames that the farmland protection community used to discuss the issue of and solutions for farmland loss. Based on those findings, we described potential policy pathways (Chapter 2). Lastly, we combined the context of the problem explored in Chapter 1 and potential policy pathways from Chapter 2 to develop a systematic, landscape-level approach to identify priority areas for farmland protection (Chapter 3). In this last chapter, we combined Systematic Conservation Planning principles and the Ecosystem Service framework to identify agricultural protection areas. In Chapter 1, we found that urbanization particularly threatens higher quality agricultural land and there were trade-offs and synergies between the supply of ecosystem services across agricultural land quality. Together, these findings enhance our understanding of the ways in which urbanization threatens agricultural land and the ecosystem services it provides. In Chapter 2, our frame analysis revealed that effective policy solutions will likely need to address a broad spectrum of concerns, linking the significance of farmland to various values, including national security, the economy, and the environment. Lastly, in Chapter 3, we demonstrated that by taking into account the multiple values of agricultural land, designated agricultural protection areas can safeguard food productivity potential while also contributing to achieving 30×30 conservation goals and protecting other essential benefits. Overall, our work adds to the growing body of ecosystem service literature, provides valuable insights to continue the on-the-ground efforts to protect agricultural land, and shows a novel application of Systematic Conservation Planning. Each of the three chapters offers distinct insights that contribute to a deeper understanding of where and how to protect agricultural land. Collectively, they propose practical solutions to better utilize agricultural land to address our most pressing environmental challenges.