Monitoring Conserved Lands with FRLT
As a land trust, FRLT works to conserve ecologically important lands and waters. We do this in a variety of ways, including by partnering with private landowners to protect their land through conservation easements. This tool allows FRLT to conserve the beautiful open spaces that characterize the Feather River region, many of which are privately-owned lands, like Bucks Lake and Home Ranch. Without conservation easements, there would be less protection for the uninterrupted vistas, wildlife habitat, and wet meadows that make the Feather River Watershed so special.
What is a Conservation Easement?
When trying to understand how a land trust ensures that private property can be protected forever, one can quickly run into legal jargon, so we’re here to make things a little easier to understand. The definition of a conservation easement is, “a voluntary, legal agreement that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values” (National Conservation Easement Database).
Sounds simple enough! Let’s break this down to some important terms to know:
“voluntary”— Conservation easements are voluntary, and FRLT only works with willing landowners who know the importance of their land and want to protect it.
“legal agreement”— Once a landowner and FRLT agree to a conservation easement, it becomes a binding legal agreement upheld by both parties.
“permanently”— That’s right, it’s forever! The conservation easement becomes part of the title for the protected property. If the property is sold, by purchasing it, the new landowner also agrees to uphold the terms of the conservation easement.
“limits the uses of the land”— Each conservation easement is a unique agreement between FRLT and the landowner, so restrictions on land use can vary. In general, most conservation easements limit subdivision, development, and detrimental changes in land use (keep reading to learn more).
“in order to protect its conservation values”— What exactly is a conservation value? Every conservation easement protects things that are important to the health and vitality of habitats, people, and planet. These values can include water resources, wildlife habitat, open space, cultural and historic resources, and agricultural lands.
The California Council of Land Trusts goes on to say, “Conservation easements are based on the idea that when people own land, they own rights that go with the property.” Landowners agree to relinquish some of those rights with a conservation easement. Generally, the rights relinquished in a conservation easement are the rights to subdivide and develop the property, as well as to conduct large-scale mining. These rights are effectively donated or sold to the land trust, and the land trust then “extinguishes” those rights in perpetuity. The land trust also works with the landowner to create a land management plan, that sets out practices and recommendations for maintaining the conservation values of the property.
The landowner retains ownership of the property and all other rights, like the right to graze cattle and produce food, if those are among the original property uses. The easement may designate a maximum number of additional homes that can be built on the property, and it allows landowners to sell the property or pass it on to heirs.
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Benefits of conservation easements
“Typically, a conservation easement limits subdivision and non-agricultural, commercial uses. Most conservation easements allow continued grazing, fencing, irrigation, hunting or other traditional land uses that are consistent with the conservation values of the property,” says the California Council of Land Trusts. This is true for many of FRLT’s conserved properties, as much of the open space in the Feather River region is made up of working ranches.
The benefit of conservation easements for landowners is that they are able to maintain ownership of their land and keep it intact when passing it on to heirs. Landowners can also be compensated for the sale of the conservation easement based on funds raised by the land trust and may receive substantial tax benefits. For conservation organizations like land trusts, benefits include being able to protect larger sections of wildlife habitat, water resources, and working lands through easements than through other means, like purchasing property outright.
Conservation easements can also help keep communities together. When local landowners, with roots in the community, can continue to live on and care for their lands, they can invest back in the land and community. This also prevents potentially harmful development in open spaces that define the character of the region.
One common misconception about conservation easements is that they require the land be accessible to the public. This is not true! Land protected with a conservation easement is still private property. In some cases, there is specific access built into the easement, such as Loyalton Learning Landscape, which serves as an outdoor classroom for Loyalton students. In other cases, FRLT works with entities that already manage publicly accessible lands—like our work to protect PG&E headwater lands including Bucks Lake—and the easement ensures public access to these beloved places continues.
Conservation easements are not always held by a land trust; they can be held by government agencies like USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Department of Fish and Wildlife, or by other entities like tribes.
FRLT has partnered with a variety of different landowners to protect important landscapes:
Properties like the Church Ranch in Sattley
Properties like Bucks Lake, owned by PG&E
Properties returned to Maidu ownership
FRLT’s Monitoring Process
Once a conservation easement has been established, the organization holding the easement is responsible for monitoring the property for any changes or violations to the agreement. FRLT monitors its conservation easements on an annual basis, documenting any changes to the property over time.
FRLT’s Conservation Easement Program Manager, Roslyn Peters, visits each property, using photo points from the time the easement was established to guide her. The standard practice is to retake photos from each photo point, rotating which photo points are visited each year to get a holistic view of the property’s condition over time.
An important aspect of the monitoring process is not to problem solve or speculate while out on the land. The Program Manager is there to document and observe any changes visible from the photo points. The assessment and descriptions come later, when staff review and compare the previous images to the current ones and create a report to share with the landowner.
In addition to being out on the property, the Program Manager also conducts interviews with the landowners to check in with them about how the year has gone, if they’ve made any changes to the property, or how certain things are faring. This is a good way for the organization and the landowners to communicate with each other about land use on the property, discuss the management plan and any concerns either party has.
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Help protect more important lands and waters in the Feather River Watershed.
Conservation easements are just one way for land to be conserved with a land trust. This process often takes years of collaboration and trust to establish, but in the end, open space, wildlife habitat, and rural livelihoods are protected, forever. And most importantly, it keeps people connected to the land they own and love.
Interested in conserving your property? Learn more today.