SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Conservation easements, particularly those arranged through agricultural land trusts, are a means of protecting land from development while continuing agricultural practices on it, proponents say.
While some older easements excluded agriculture and created other problems, they shouldn’t give all easements a black eye, said Ogden Driskill, a sixth-generation rancher at Devils Tower, Wyo., and a state legislator.
Driskill was part of a panel on conservation easements held during the Idaho Cattle Association’s 100th annual convention.
Many conservation easements preserve agricultural practices, such as grazing, but it is important to pick the conservation partner carefully, he said.
The reality is that without a conservation easement, ranching families across the West face having their land split, subdivided and developed, he said.
“If you really want to be a rancher and not a real estate developer, it’s a good tool,” he said.
Under a conservation easement, the rancher typically sells the land development rights to a third party such as a land trust.
Agricultural land trusts have revolutionized conservation easements and offer a way for every ranch family to make sure ranchers are ranching into the future, said Driskill, who is a founding member of the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust.
Ownership remains with the rancher, the easement is set up to meet the rancher’s desires for the land and the rancher maintains his agricultural practices and control of public access.
“We don’t have a single rancher who has heartburn about doing an easement,” he said.
Land trusts are not allowed to own property, they don’t dictate what’s done on the land, and they don’t prevent capitalizing on the ranch. They basically stop a family from splitting up the land and preserve ag land in perpetuity, he said.
It gives a rancher an opportunity to “rule from the grave” as to the future of the land and providing protection for future generations, he said.
Looking to preserve his ranching legacy for future generations, Driskill and his family placed a conservation easement on their family ranch.
Lemhi County, Idaho, rancher Merrill Beyeler said he saw conservation easements as an opportunity to continue his operation, which has been in the family since 1910. It is a tool that will allow his children and grandchildren to come back to the ranch, he said.
Conservation easements also preserve open land and fish and wildlife habitat, keep land working and keep rural economies functioning, he said.
His family partnered with the Central Idaho Grazing Network in a conservation easement to protect the landscape, implement innovative practices, achieve financial stability and provide a high-quality lifestyle, he said.
Land trusts work with private landowners to conserve ranches, forests and farms; preserve water quality; and protect wildlife. They come in many types with public and private partners and are focused on the landowner and his needs, said Laurel Sayer, executive director of Coalition of Idaho Land Trusts.
They allow landowners to continue owning and using their land and to sell it or pass it on to their heirs, she said.
Conservations easements do tie the hands of the heirs as far as splitting up the land, but that is far better than having to sell the property to pay taxes, she said.
Addressing questions from the audience, panel members said easements don’t trump eminent domain or eliminate or necessarily reduce property taxes, and there isn’t yet a way to tie public-lands grazing permits to the easement.