|The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service Role in Conservation Easements
A comprehensive strategy to
reverse habitat fragmentation would include two important elements: a habitat restoration
program such as the current Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, and a habitat
protection program consisting of voluntary conservation easements. The Fish and Wildlife
Service could own and manage easements, as is now the case with wetland easements,
grassland easements, and other conservation easements. Easements are cost effective
conservation. The cost of purchasing and managing a conservation easement on private land
is much less than purchasing the land.
In addition, the Service could impact
conservation on easement land managed by others. For example, the Service could build on
current successes by doing more to provide technical and financial assistance to local
land trusts and community conservation foundations through Partners for Fish and Wildlife.
Build Trust with Landowners
through Short-Term Habitat Restoration Agreements.
Partners for Fish and Wildlife is a positive,
results-oriented approach to fish and wildlife conservation on private land. The goal is
to restore habitat for wildlife species that are Federal trust responsibilities. The
species list includes migratory birds; as well as some mammals, fish, reptiles, and
amphibians whose numbers are declining. On-the-ground habitat restoration projects
include: stream renovation for native fish; prairie wetland restoration for waterfowl and
wading birds; and native prairie renovation for grassland songbirds and upland nesting
ducks. The work is accomplished by an active alliance of willing landowners, nongovernment
organizations, tribes, and State and Federal agencies. Landowner choice drives Partners
for Fish and Wildlife habitat work. Nothing happens until a landowner says yes. Blending
wildlife conservation with profitable agriculture is the formula for success.
Short-term agreements are important Partners for
Fish and Wildlife tools. Agreements are written for a term, usually 10 to
30 years, agreed to by a landowner and a Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist.
These agreements, negotiated over the kitchen table, enable successful private land
habitat restorations to take place. The landowners commit land for a project, as well as
some habitat project. There are short-term agreements in place with 7,000 landowners in
the Mountain-Prairie Region. About 500 to 600 new agreements are added per year.
The trust building that develops with landowners
through habitat restoration agreements sometimes leads to conservation easements. Some
landowners will agree to an easement only after establishing and testing a relationship
through a short-term agreement. About 20 percent of the wetlands restored through
short-term agreements later become permanently protected at the landowner's request.
|The conservation easement on this ranch evolved
from a short-term agreement to restore the foreground wetland.
The H2-O Ranch in the Blackfoot Valley,
Montana, is another example of short-term agreements leading to permanent conservation
easements. In 1993, a cooperative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Ducks Unlimited; Trout Unlimited; National Fish and
Wildlife Foundation; and the H2-O Ranch restored 35 drained oxbow wetlands and enhanced an
additional 15 wetlands totaling over 200 acres.In 1996, the Montana Land Reliance secured
a conservation easement on the H2-O Ranch perpetually protecting a 3,800-acre block.
| H2-O Ranch
Link Partners for Fish and Wildlife
with Community Conservation Foundations.
There is a strong case for developing links
between Partners for Fish and Wildlife, local community conservation foundations, and
national private foundations. The expected results are: (1) the development and
continued presence of strong local broad-based conservation groups that support habitat
restoration and easements and (2) increased habitat restoration funding from national
Recently a new tool has come into existence
which may be of great benefit to Partners for Fish and Wildlife. Large national
foundations have decided to stimulate the formation of community conservation foundations
as a more effective way of addressing conservation and preservation issues than the
traditionally narrow focus of national environmental groups. The formation of these
community foundations offers Partners for Fish and Wildlife a golden opportunity to
multiply the effectiveness of both its funding and staff. The most critical attributes
that large foundations look for in community foundations are: (1) long-term
continuity of operation and (2) ability to bring disparate elements of the community
together to support conservation projects. A Partners for Fish and Wildlife presence as a
member of the local conservation "insiders group" can help strengthen both
attributes in a local community. Partners for Fish and Wildlife relies on a variety of
creative tools to accomplish its goal of restoring private land fish and wildlife habitat
in ways that support traditional rural lifestyles and profitable agriculture. This goal
can be easily collaborated with broader community conservation foundation goals. The
assignment of Partners for Fish and Wildlife staff time and seed money for habitat
restoration, within broader based community conservation goals, has been the formula for
success in the Blackfoot Challenge and the Mission Valley Conservation Foundation, and
before that in the Pioneer Heritage Conservation Trust, to name a few examples.
A community conservation foundation is more than
a rod and gun club, or an Audubon chapter, or a land trust, or historic preservation
group, but can represent the interests of all and overcome the shortcomings of each acting
singly. The Pioneer Heritage Conservation Trust in Evansville, Minnesota, is a good
example. They have successfully raised money to finance projects as diverse as wetland
restoration, teacher scholarships for environmental education, preservation of historic
buildings, waterfowl research, and improvements to the pioneer cemetery.
Looking to the future, it is important for
Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologists to continue building information networks and
personal contacts at the local level. The purpose is to accelerate habitat restorations
and conservation easements by leveraging more money from large foundations. One of the
many roles for community conservation foundations is to receive grants from large
foundations. Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologists can fill the role of intermediary
between landowners who want to restore habitat and the foundations that fund habitat
restoration. The intermediary role is important to the life of the community conservation
foundation. By their presence and dedication to habitat restoration, Partners
for Fish and Wildlife biologists can help sustain the long-term commitment of local
community-based conservation volunteers. Delivering the important "interim
wins", in the form of specific habitat projects enables volunteers to see incremental
progress on the ground.
There is no single Partners for Fish and
Wildlife strategy in working with community conservation foundations. Rather, strategies
are developed to fit unique circumstances of particular communities, in particular places,
and particular wildlife habitat needs. There are, however, some common threads in Partners
for Fish and Wildlife participation:
- To sustain fish and wildlife populations through
private land habitat restoration, using methods that are fully compatible with traditional
rural lifestyles and profitable agriculture.
- To focus on the habitat needs of Federal trust
fish and wildlife species, including declining species.
- To amplify resources through partnerships.
Here are some potential tasks for Partners for
Fish and Wildlife biologists in linking with community conservation foundations:
- Represent the interests of wildlife habitat
during the formation of new community conservation foundations.
- Publicly offer and deliver Partners for Fish and
Wildlife commitment to the local foundation.
- Help write grant applications and present habitat
fund-raising ideas to large foundations.
- Recommend estate planning options for Partners
for Fish and Wildlife cooperators who may endow the community conservation foundation.
- Give regular feedback to the local group on
habitat restoration success stories.
- Contract with a community conservation foundation
to deliver habitat projects.
Use a Landscape Approach to Match Landowners
with Federal, State or Private Habitat Programs.
The landscape approach, or Integrated Habitat
Restoration, enables Service employees to look for habitat solutions beyond land
acquisition. A Service employee meets with a landowner and then works to apply the right
program. The right program meets the landowner's interests and helps solve a habitat
restoration/protection need. If the Service employee can meet with organized groups of
landowners, the habitat benefits are amplified. Service experience with landowner groups
such as the Nebraska Sandhills Task Force, South Dakota's Sugarloaf Grazing Association,
and Montana's Blackfoot Challenge are examples.