Conservation Easement  EXAMPLES


Wetland Easements     U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An easement wetland covered with snowgeese in South Dakota.In the late 1950's, concern over rampant U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidized wetland drainage catalyzed the conservation community. One result was the Small Wetland Acquisition Program which provided an alternative to drainage. Starting in 1961, Duck Stamp funds were used to purchase easements and fee title to wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Both alternatives are still used today. The easement alternative is attractive to landowners because it protects existing wetlands in a way that does not interfere with normal farming practices. The easement transfers to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the rights to drain, fill, level, or burn easement wetlands. The easement does not restrict farming, grazing, or haying easement wetlands when they are dry from natural causes.

Easement wetlands are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Currently, in the States of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, there are over 1,200,000 wetland acres protected permanently.

Partners for Fish and Wildlife restores drained pothole wetlands, which makes them eligible for wetland easement protection. About 20 percent of the wetlands restored through Partners for Fish and Wildlife become permanently protected at the landowner's request.

Grassland Easements      U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A grassland easement in a prairie-pothole complex.The grassland easement, always used in combination with a wetland easement, protects the entire prairie pothole community. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first offered this combination of easements in 1991. Since then, it has been used successfully to retroactively protect the grass uplands around wetlands previously protected by wetland easements, and it is now used concurrently with wetland easements.

The easement terms restrict haying, mowing, and grass seed harvest until after July 15 of each year. Alteration (plowing) of grasslands, wildlife habitat, and other natural features is prohibited. Farming is prohibited. Landowners maintain permanent vegetative cover such as forbs, grasses, and low shrubs. Grazing is allowed at any time.

Grassland easements are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. In Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota there are over 400,000 acres in grassland easements.

Partners for Fish and Wildlife provides information to landowners on grassland easements and makes referrals to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Realty Division staff. Partners for Fish and Wildlife also restores grasslands, making them eligible for grassland easement protection.

Conservation Easements    

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A conservation easement in western Montana.The Fish and Wildlife Service can acquire conservation easements to protect trust species habitat on private land. Typically used where fee acquisition is not desirable or needed, perpetual easements are purchased from willing landowners within designated project areas. Funding to acquire easements can come from the Migratory Bird Conservation Act Fund, Land and Water Conservation Fund, or North American Wetland Conservation Act funds. Easements generally prohibit the subdivision and development of private land while still permitting traditional agricultural uses. The cost of purchasing an easement depends on its restrictions but generally ranges from 30 percent to 50 percent of the land's full fee value.

This easement is proving to be a useful tool among ranchers, many of whom want to protect their land from future subdivision. This easement protects over 35,000 acres in Montana.

Partners for Fish and Wildlife provides technical support to landowners who are in the market for information on land protection options. Referrals are provided to the Realty Division. Perfected easements become part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Land Trust Conservation Easements

A land trust is a nonprofit organization established for the purpose of protecting land resources, such as agricultural land, open space, and wildlife habitat. There are national land trusts, such as The Nature Conservancy, and there are local trusts. In nearly all cases, the members of the Board of Directors of the local land trust are members of the community in which the land trust operates. Some land trusts have members, others do not. Land trusts also may be governmental. Many cities and counties, or State and Federal agencies, have land trusts.

The Land Trust Alliance provides the national focus for the growing private land trust movement in the United States. Local land trusts number over 1,200 and new trusts are being formed at the rate of one a week. The formation of this amount of talent and energy is in clear response to some very badly planned housing developments that trampled local concerns for open space and wildlife.

Most private land trusts do not buy easements. They accept donated conservation easements and enforce the development restrictions contained in the conservation easement. Representatives of a land trust will periodically inspect the property to verify that it is not being developed in violation of the conservation easement.

As an example, The Centennial Land Trust is incorporated to preserve open space in an agricultural community. The Trust provides the following information to landowners.

The Centennial Land Trust
Morgan and Weld Counties, Colorado

Land Threats

The conversion of Colorado's agricultural land to nonagricultural uses is a serious issue for all citizens of the State. In addition to its direct impacts on farmers and ranchers, agricultural land conversion affects the cost and quality of food, economic stability, wildlife habitat, air quality, cost of government, and Colorado's western heritage.

The Land Trust Alternative

In Morgan and Weld Counties, agricultural lands are increasingly turning into housing subdivisions. The tread threatens the area's renowned agricultural reputation, the stability of the agricultural economy, and wildlife habitat. Farmers and ranchers are working to protect the area's agricultural heritage through the Centennial Land Trust, a private, nonprofit land trust.

How does the trust work to save farmland?

The trust provides conservation easement advice to landowners and holds conservation easements.

The purpose of the Centennial Land Trust is to preserve open space, including but not limited to farmlands, grasslands, wetlands, forest lands, water use and quality, wildlife habitat, and river corridors for the benefit of the general and local public.

The Trust works cooperatively with landowners, local government, and conservation agencies to develop management plans for land protected by conservation easements.

What is a Conservation Easement?

A conservation easement is a legal agreement voluntarily entered into by a property owner and a qualified conservation organization such as the Centennial Land Trust. The easement permanently protects a property's conservation values by placing some limitations on the property's uses--such as limits on housing subdivisions.

With a Centennial Land Trust easement, there is no condemnation and there is no requirement for public access.

Conservation easements offer several advantages to landowners:

  • The property remains in private ownership. The landowner may continue to live on it, farm it, sell it, or pass it on to heirs.
  • Estate taxes are significantly lower, sometimes making the difference between heirs holding onto the family land or selling it to pay taxes.
  • Easements may provide the landowner with income tax and property tax benefits.
  • Easements are flexible and can be written to meet each landowner's needs while protecting the property's resources.
  • Easements are permanent, remaining in force when the land changes hands. The Centennial Land Trust, as easement holder, ensures that any easement restrictions are followed.

Follow the Centennial Land Trust as it acquires its  First Land Trust Easement on a Morgan County Ranch near Orchard, Colorado.

Another example of a land trust is the Mesa County Land Conservancy in Colorado.

Mesa County
Land Conservancy
Mesa County Land Conservancy in Colorado photo
Farmers in the Grand Valley are working to protect the county's agricultural
heritage through the Conservancy.

Wetlands Reserve Program     U.S. Dept. of Agriculture/ Natural Resources Conservation Service

The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program offering payments to landowners for restoring and protecting wetlands on their property. The WRP provides three different mechanisms for wetland restoration and protection. A basic cost-share agreement will provide money and technical help for wetland restoration. No easement payment is included. A 30-year easement provides resources for wetland restoration and an easement payment. A permanent easement provides resources for wetland restoration and an easement payment based on the agricultural market value of the land. The basis for any of the three WRP options is the presence of a degraded wetland on which wetland functions can be practicably restored.

By signing a WRP easement, a landowner transfers most land use rights to the USDA. Some uses, such as haying or grazing, but not farming, can be granted back to the landowner at USDA's discretion. Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologists assist USDA in screening eligible property and developing management plans.

WRP easement in Montana

This photograph shows part of the proposed 7,000-acre Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge acquisition will overlay a Wetland Reserve Program easement on 1,500 acres. This "piggy-backing" will save $1.7 million in Refuge acquisition funds, money that will be used on other Service protection projects.

A similar partnership is occurring at Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska.

Farm Service Agency Easements    U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is another USDA agency with a program to protect wetlands with easements. Legislation in 1996 applied some serious limits on FSA's ability to use conservation easements, but prior to that time many FSA borrowers used easements or actual title transfers to reduce their debt load. The "debt for nature" concept was particularly attractive to some FSA borrowers whose loans were in default. In process, FSA offered a conservation easement developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to a debtor landowner. The debt reduction value of the easement was also presented to the landowner. If the landowner agreed to the offer, his land debt was reduced accordingly and the easement or fee title was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Partners for Fish and Wildlife conducted habitat restoration work before handing off a restored property to the Refuge System. In Kansas and in Colorado, the State wildlife agency manages most easement properties. In the other six Mountain-Prairie Region States, FSA transfers and easements add 74,600 acres to the Refuge System.

Wildlife Management Area in Nebraska with an FSA easement

This photograph shows a Wildlife Management Area in Nebraska. This 900-acre property consists of an FSA fee-title transfer to the Service; and an FSA conservation easement managed by the Service. Both real estate transactions addressed a debt load reduction issue between a landowner and his lender, the Farm Service Agency.

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Partners for Fish and Wildlife
Mountain Prairie Region
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service