Opinion by Ken Hamilton
Are 1,000-year Conservation Easements the Answer?
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Vice President
We see a lot of information about conservation easements, and now that the federal government is getting into the act in a big way in Wyoming, people need to step back and ask themselves if conservation easements are the answer to the problem.
When Wyoming entered the Union, everyone assumed that at some point most, if not all, of the federal land in Wyoming would eventually find its way into private ownership. With Wyoming still having plenty of federally owned land in the 1930s and the cessation of the federal government processing homestead applications, people in Wyoming still clung to the hope that at some point these lands would move into private ownership. Now close to 70 years later, even the most optimistic among us would have to say that the days of private individuals being able to get their piece of federal land is not likely to happen. Indeed, the focus has shifted to just trying to keep the federal government from acquiring more land.
The federal government has also learned that folks in the western states view the purchase of private lands by the government as a call to arms. But what if you didn’t have to buy the land outright? What if you could get another branch of the federal government to help you out and, instead of buying the ground, you could purchase, for 1,000 years, the right to dictate what can or cannot happen on private ground? And what if, when you did this, the tax-collecting arm of the federal government would provide an incentive to the private landowner. Wouldn’t that be better than an outright purchase?
People should ask themselves these questions when they see the amount of federal dollars that are allocated to purchase conservation easements in Wyoming. The NRCS recently announced they were allocating $40.2 million dollars to permanently conserve over 88,000 acres of land in Wyoming. The cause used for this effort is to prevent the listing of the sage grouse, but one cannot help but wonder what the next species will need and how much money will then be spent to purchase additional development rights on the remaining private ground. Keep in mind that the federal government already can tell Wyoming what to do on close to 50 percent of the surface estate. How many more private surface acre uses will be dictated by the federal government after a couple of possible endangered species get passed around?
I believe there is a better way. The better way would be to offer a short term easement to the private landowner who could re-evaluate their operation after a period of time, say 10 years or so, and decide whether the money offered for this property right is adequate or if circumstances have changed enough that another possible use would better serve the property owner. I know the federal government will resist such an idea, just like pipeline or power line owners resist annual payments.
However, offering a short-term easement deal is not a new idea. Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP) were offered for less than 1,000 years. Many landowners took advantage of CRP contracts, but as conditions have changed, they are now re-evaluating their decision. Why shouldn’t someone who happens to have sage grouse on their place be afforded the same consideration? Plus, it avoids those inter-generational problems that can occur when you are dealing with something that can last for up to 1,000 years.
Let’s step back and look at what is offered, but instead of accepting the first offer, let’s offer to help conserve _______ (put in your favorite species here), but at the end of a period of time lets look at the deal again to see if it is the best use of the land resource.
Term conservation easements are an idea whose time is come – especially in the West.