Mountain-Prairie Region  Partners for Fish & Wildlife
HABITAT MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES duck, frog and fish drawing
Conservation Easements . . .
Private Rights and Public Benefits

What is a Conservation Easement?

A "debt for nature" easement A conservation easement is a legal agreement voluntarily entered into by a property owner and a qualified conservation organization such as a land trust or government agency. The easement contains permanent restrictions on the use or development of land in order to protect its conservation values. These easement restrictions vary greatly for each agency or organization.

Why Landowners enter into Conservation Easements

Landowner motivations to acquire conservation easements are diverse. Most landowners hold a deep appreciation for wildlife, and an easement protecting habitat displays heartfelt concern for wildlife's future. There may be a general concern that subdivision has gone too far. There may be additional interests to retain limited development rights for family use or for future income generation. Conservation easements can be structured to address any of these interests.

Advantages offered by Conservation Easements
Private Ownership The property remains in private ownership and continues to contribute to the local tax base. The landowner may choose to live on the land, sell it, or pass it on to heirs.
Flexibility Easements are flexible and can be written to meet a particular landowner's needs while protecting the property's wildlife resources.
Permanency Most easements are permanent, remaining in force when the land changes hands. The easement holder ensures that the restrictions are followed.
Tax Reduction There are significant tax advantages if easements are donated rather than sold.
-Charitable Taxes The donation of a conservation easement to a land trust is treated as a charitable gift of the development rights. The donation creates a charitable tax deduction, equal to the value of the conservation easement, on the landowner's Federal and State income tax returns.
-Estate Taxes Estate taxes are significantly lower, sometimes making the difference between heirs holding onto the family land or selling it to pay inheritance taxes.
-Property Taxes Conservation easements will sometimes lower property taxes, a result of reduced valuation on property subject to the conservation easement.
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. A conservation easement

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.

"Before" aerial photo showing drained oxbow wetlands H2-O Ranch
"After" aerial photo of restored oxbow wetlands

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 private foundations.

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.

Browns Lake Focus Area Landscape Protection map Browns Lake focus area map legend
The figure above shows the landscape approach in a 35-square mile focus area within the Blackfoot River watershed. Different habitat options are used to appeal to different landowner's interests. With some landowners, the path towards permanent easement protection starts with a Partners for Fish and Wildlife habitat restoration agreement.

Future Opportunities for Wildlife Habitat Easement Protection

There are good opportunities ahead to restore habitat on land protected by conservation easements. On which easement program should staff time be invested to get the best return for Federal trust species habitat? Fish and Wildlife Service wetland and grassland easements are proven easements but are limited to the Prairie Pothole States. The newer Fish and Wildlife Service conservation easement has wider application, as do The Nature Conservancy or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation easements. Local land trusts are most active in places with the highest human demand for scenic living, usually within sight of mountains. U.S. Department of Agriculture easements can be used widely across the rural landscape.

The answer to the question on future opportunities is to be flexible. Biologists should know about all easement opportunities and be prepared to provide the best "kitchen table" information to landowners, and then be prepared to follow through with the right deal including habitat restoration and the appropriate easement.