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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
- Estate taxes are significantly lower,
sometimes making the difference between heirs holding onto the family land or selling it to
- 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.
|Farmers in the Grand
Valley are working to protect the county's agricultural
heritage through the Conservancy.
||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
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
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
A similar partnership is occurring at
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska.
Service Agency Easements
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.
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.