Leaving a Legacy of Land

By Ed Contreras, IWJV's Working Wetlands Conservation Delivery Coordinator

Protecting private lands that provide significant natural resource or cultural values is often a capstone objective for landowners, managers, and conservationists. It’s a tangible way to demonstrate commitment to conservation and leave a legacy of land which has been enhanced, restored, or managed in some special way. Conservation easements are a unique tool to ensure a tract of land will continue to provide ecosystem services, viewscapes, wildlife habitat, or other important resources without risk of fragmentation, urban development, or incompatible land use changes. Land ownership and control remains in the hands of the original owner, in many cases families who have been stewarding the land for generations.

The Hulsman Ranch Conservation Easement, held by Lassen Land & Trails Trust, protects a riparian corridor and upland habitat on a portion of a grass-fed lamb and cattle operation located just outside the rural town of Susanville, CA, which has been in the same family since 1862.

Conservation easements are a complex tool -- they require an easement holder, appraisals, deed terms, management plan, monitoring protocols, and thoughtful consideration. Often, one of the most challenging aspects of implementing a conservation easement is securing capital to purchase the easement. (After all, conservation easements are a real-estate transaction where the landowner is often selling the subdivision and development rights on the property.) One opportunity for funding the purchase of a conservation easement is offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Agricultural Land Easements under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP-ALE). As the name implies, ACEP-ALE is especially suited for properties where agricultural production is compatible with the conservation values being protected, providing matching funds to land trusts for the purchase of a conservation easement. ACEP-ALE permits agricultural producers to continue farming and ranching as stated in the conservation easement deed terms. In rural communities where agriculture is the bedrock of the economy, ACEP-ALE is an option for landowners who wish to protect their land while maintaining a livelihood founded on sustainable agricultural production.

The IWJV and its network of partners are working together to identify lands where ACEP-ALE can protect key wildlife habitat and support agriculture. For example, in the sagebrush steppe, easements have been implemented on working ranches with key brood rearing and nesting areas for sage grouse. In northern California, partners are applying ACEP-ALE funds (set aside through a Regional Conservation Partnership Program and made available in 2018) to protect wetlands and wet meadows on flood irrigated pastures that provide important migration habitat for birds in the Pacific Flyway. The IWJV recognizes the critical value of agriculture and private lands for wildlife habitat and supports compatible agricultural practices.

The Hulsman Ranch Conservation Easement was acquired in 2012 for the purpose of protecting part of the agricultural heritage of Lassen County, critical water resources, and wildlife habitat under threat of exurban development.

One of the risks to the future of agriculture is loss of interest in farming and ranching by new generations. Agriculture is bound with narrow profit margins and inheriting a farm with hefty mortgage payments often deters individuals from continuing in the family business. When planned properly, easements can be key to succession planning and keeping farms and ranches in the family. Young producers attempting to build their agricultural operation from the ground up face steep land values in many parts of the West. Agricultural easements enable producers to purchase land that is valued for farming and ranching as opposed to commercial or residential development, thereby providing an opportunity for those passionate about agriculture to enter the industry.

ACEP-ALE is a powerful resource for protecting high value wildlife habitat on working lands in the Intermountain West. The program provides 50% match, and up to 75% match for key habitats like Grasslands of Special Significance, of the total price of the easement. Easements must be held by a qualified easement-holding entity (usually a local land trust) which is responsible for submitting the ACEP-ALE application to NRCS. The IWJV can help to connect interested landowners with the appropriate land trust. To learn more about this program and discuss potential easement projects in your area, contact your local NRCS field office or NRCS state easement coordinator.