All About Conservation Easements

In April we heard from Land Manager Courtney Bornsworth about how the Land Trust manages and maintains the properties that it owns. This month we are excited to share information about how the Land Trust supports and monitors conservation easements on properties owned by private landowners. In this article, Conservation Director Mike Auger highlights the Land Trust’s stewardship role in the conservation easement partnership.

From Mike…

We talk a lot about conserving land in perpetuity here at the North Olympic Land Trust, but have you ever wondered how we do it? Well, we use a variety of tools, but two of the main ones used by the land trust community are direct ownership/land management (described in a previous article) and conservation easements on private land. North Olympic Land Trust currently conserves approximately 2,650 acres of privately owned property through almost 80 conservation easements that we hold.

a conservation easement sign

So what are conservation easements? They are legal documents which are created in partnership between the Land Trust and the landowner to forever protect the conservation values of the property. Examples of conservation values include habitat, farmland, watershed protection, open space, and working forests, to name a few. Once placed on the property they are permanent and follow the property in perpetuity. As the property is still privately owned by the landowner, they are responsible for the day-to-day management, including paying taxes, and can ultimately sell the land to whomever they choose. When the land is sold, the conservation easement follows the property in perpetuity, so subsequent landowners also have to abide to the restrictions within the conservation easement.

As a nationally accredited land trust, we follow the best practices to ensure our conservation easements are of the highest quality and will achieve the mutual goals of the landowner and Land Trust forever. As such there is a particular order that we follow when creating conservation easements.

First is getting to know the landowners, their land and the vision for the conservation of it. Pre-COVID, the best place to accomplish this was often literally sitting around a kitchen table and then of course walking the land to get to know it and understand what conservation values can be protected. This getting to know the landowners and their land is my favorite part of the process.

We then bring a potential project outline to our Conservation Committee and then to our Board. If the organization is supportive of the permanent conservation of the property, Land Trust staff then continues to meet with the landowners and comes up with a plan to move forward, which often includes determining what funds will be used for the project. Typical costs include legal costs to draft the document, due diligence items such as appraisal, title report, surveys and environmental site assessments, and a stewardship fund. The stewardship fund ensures that the Land Trust has the financial capacity to ensure forever that the conservation values within the conservation easement are upheld in perpetuity.

a private residence on land conserved using an easement

Once the due diligence is completed, the conservation easement is drafted. This is when the shared vision of the landowner and the Land Trust that was first discussed at the kitchen table and refined over months of working together, is put into the legal language by Land Trust attorneys that will ensure the conservation values are protected permanently. Also, certain funders often have specific requirements that need to be included within the easements as well. Once all parties agree on the final language, then our Stewardship staff creates the Baseline Documentation Report.

I always like to say that the Baseline Documentation Report is a snapshot in time, taken at the time the easement is placed on the property and documents, in plain language, the restrictions to protect the conservation values agreed to the landowner and the Land Trust. Once completed the report is signed by both the landowner and the Land Trust. It includes photos, maps, descriptions of the conservation values. The Baseline Documentation Report can also be an important enforcement tool to ensure the protection of the property. Lastly, in order for the landowner to potentially claim a charitable deduction, the IRS requires that a Baseline Documentation Report is created. While the original Baseline Documentation Report can’t be changed, updates are periodically done, especially after major events that can be allowed within a conservation easement, such as exercising a reserved right such as a home construction, the building of a new barn on a working farm or a timber harvest in a working forest.

cows enjoy conserved farmland!

Once the conservation easement is signed and completed, the main responsibility of the Land Trust is to ensure that the conservation values of the property are being protected as described within the conservation easement. To accomplish this we have a robust conservation easement stewardship program where we visit each of the almost 80 conservation easements annually.

After communicating to the landowner of when we plan to visit and also invite them to join us if that works for them, we prepare for the visit by reviewing all of the pertinent documents regarding the property including the Baseline Documentation Reports, previous property monitoring reports and other plans for the property such as Forest Management Plans. The day of the visit we, usually staff and often a volunteer, come equipped with proper clothing such as long pants to protect tender legs from raspberries and devil’s claw; proper footwear for sloshing around in wet areas and for traction while climbing up slopes; a raincoat and rain pants which are required items here and hats to keep twigs and insects out of your hair! We also bring plenty of sunscreen (yes, even here in the rainy PNW!). While on the visit, we keep a sharp eye out for poison ivy, yellow jacket nests and neighbor’s dogs while documenting the conservation values of the protected properties.

Once the visit is completed, we follow-up with landowner that the visit is done and if applicable discuss any items of interest with them. One of the most important aspects to me is that the monitoring process continues to strengthen the bond with the landowners and even recommits to the initial promise we made when we first accepted the conservation easement on the land.