RENO, Nev. – Rural landowners should carefully evaluate the merits of granting conservation easements to their property because of the potentially far-reaching implications of such agreements, according to speakers at an American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting conference.
Do your homework. Steven Bick, principal consultant for Northeast Forests LLC, warned that reliable information about conservation easements can be difficult to locate. He also noted that agreements creating easements could impose unexpectedly negative consequences on the private property owner.
An easement instrument gives certain rights to the purchasing entity, and it preserves certain rights for the landowner. And, these rights are subject to negotiation.
Bick said land management strategies and best management practices increasingly are becoming more common in conservation easement documents.
Bick explained he doesn’t favor or oppose such agreements.
Educate landowners. “My goal is to help landowners make informed decisions about whether a conservation easement can be good or bad,” he said.
After having decided to enter into an easement agreement, a landowner should treat the deed drafted by a purchasing agency or organization as the basis for discussion, not a final document.
The landowner must inspect the deed closely – preferably with the help of other rural property owners, attorneys and other professionals.
Look things over. For example, a statement of purpose in a conservation easement can form the basis of the subsequent rights retained by the landowner.
Most importantly, restrictions stipulated in the body of the document will prevent the landowner from conducting specific business activities on the property.
“You need to be well-informed on the restrictions that affect your livelihood,” Bick said.
He challenged his audience to consider the value of conservation easements for their respective farm operations.
“Find out what opportunities are available to you. Get professional help from someone who is responsible to you.”
Differences. Jefferson Edgens, a professor at Jackson State University, asserted that conservation easements granted to private organizations are superior to those offered to governmental agencies.
He said that conservation easements granted to public agencies have generally led to bad public policy. Government entities manage land inefficiently, take control away from landowners and generate excessive costs upon the public treasury, Edgens said.
Another option. A land trust is an alternative tool that may be used to achieve the same goals as an easement, Edgens explained.
Moreover, a private land trust, established to manage property so that it is protected from development and used continuously in agricultural production, may be the best option for many farmers and ranchers.
Edgens cited the trust founded in 1995 by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association as an example of a successful private initiative. That trust is now protecting more than 116,000 acres of productive agricultural property.
He emphasized that urbanites do not understand property rights as recognized by farmers and ranchers.
“Who controls the land should be of greater importance than whether a landowner is paid or donates an easement,” Edgens said.
He suggested that state Farm Bureaus, county Farm Bureaus and other agricultural organizations could also organize such trusts.
“Who knows best about farming?” he asked.