Easements help keep promise for generations to come

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What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “conservation easement?”

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust, conservation group or governmental agency that places permanent restrictions on certain land uses, while keeping the land in private ownership.

Conservation easements are a practical way for landowners to preserve the scenic and natural resources of their property, retain ownership of the property and possibly receive financial benefits.

So, you might ask, what is a land trust? A land trust is a nonprofit organization that, as all or part of its mission, conserves land using easements, and accepts the stewardship of such land or easements. Land trusts work with landowners and the community by accepting donations of land, buying land, negotiating private, voluntary conservation agreements on land and stewarding conserved land through the generations to come.

Most land trusts are community-based and deeply connected to local needs, so they are well-equipped to identify land that offers critical natural habitat as well as land such as working farms with agricultural and other conservation values.

The Blue Mountain Land Trust, located here in Walla Walla, has been in existence since 1999. We are dedicated to assisting private landowners with conservation of their land. Our board members are local citizens from all walks of life.

As our “service area” is the Blue Mountains region, two of our board members live in the Pendleton area. We currently hold nine conservation easements in Columbia and Walla Walla counties, and are working on our 10th. When the 10th is completed next year we will be stewarding about 870 acres.

Every conservation easement is different, with terms and conditions such as reserved rights and prohibited uses negotiated with the landowner to conserve resources in a way that meets their needs while protecting conservation values such as clean, cold water, wildlife habitat and scenic views important to the whole community.

Generally, working farms and limited development are allowed, along with uses currently enjoyed on the property. Most conservation easements will either limit or prohibit subdivision of a property. Construction of new structures may be limited, along with commercial or industrial activity, and depending on the conservation values to be protected, ground-disturbing activity may be curtailed along streams and in sensitive wildlife habitat.

Once completed, the conservation easement is signed and recorded with the property deed, and the land retains the easement forever, even with a change in property ownership. A conservation easement may cover all or just a portion of a property, with for instance a residence and outbuildings either excluded from the easement or defined within a “building envelope” with few restrictions on land use.

Conservation easements may be donated or bought. The landowner not only has the satisfaction of protecting land and resources, but may also benefit through direct payment for the value of the agreement, federal income tax and estate tax reductions, and in some cases property tax reduction. The property remains in private ownership and can be used as before, sold or bequeathed.

Once in place, the land trust continues a stewardship partnership with the landowner. The land trust monitors compliance with the easement terms and conditions and works with the landowner to protect, restore, and enhance the conservation values present on the property.

The Blue Mountain Land Trust is an active member of the conservation community throughout the region, and we have the ability to mobilize volunteers and other partner organizations to assist with clean-up, fence building, restoration recommendations, and in some cases restoration planting of native vegetation.

Tom Reilly is the Executive Director of the Blue Mountain Land Trust and can be reached at 509-525-3136 or by e-mail tomreilly@bmlt.org.

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