Multicounty Conservation Easement Workshop Targets Private Landowners
Multicounty Conservation Easement Workshop Targets Private Landowners
Story by Beverly Moseley
Texas has three times more privately held land than any state in the U.S. Some private landowners in the stateï¿½s unique coastal prairie region gathered in Hempstead recently at a multicounty workshop to learn about opportunities available for rural land preservation.
More than 60 individuals from surrounding counties such as Lee, Walker, Austin, Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend, attended the workshop which focused on conservation easements. Attendees had an opportunity to hear experts speak from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Coastal Watershed Program, Texas Land Trust Council, Braun & Associates Attorneys at Law, Katy Prairie Conservancy and Legacy Land Trust.
ï¿½Like many of the participants and speakers, I was excited at the community response to this type of event and land preservation in the multi-county area. We are on the edge of Houston here and if we have the opportunity to enroll some of these properties into conservation easements weï¿½ve been all the more successful today,ï¿½ said Trey Bethke, NRCS district conservationist in Hempstead. ï¿½At least we got people talking about it and made people aware conservation easements are a viable option.ï¿½
Steven Mikulencak, program coordinator for the Texas Coastal Watershed Program based in Houston, began the workshop by breaking through the concrete of urban development to highlight the Coastal Plains unique region which is home to wetlands, estuaries, prairie potholes, prime farmlands, along with farming and ranching operations.
ï¿½This is our Grand Canyon,ï¿½ Mikulencak said.
Urban development continues to fracture this unique landscape. Prime farmland, undeveloped land and wildlife habitat continue to be consumed and developed to meet demand.
ï¿½The loss of this farmland is irreplaceable,ï¿½ said Mikulencak.
He noted that the area has an abundance of waterways such as rivers, channels and creeks. It is the central flyway for migratory birds and has some of the best soils in the nation.
ï¿½Within the river channels is where all the magic of soil making is made,ï¿½ Mikulencak said.
Utilizing conservation and land stewardship practices are steps landowners can take now to benefit rural and urban environments.
ï¿½Conservation is for something. Itï¿½s not against development,ï¿½ he said.
According to the Institute for Renewable Natural Resources at Texas A&M University, from 1997 to 2007 more than 2.1 million acres were taken from Texas farms, forestlands and ranches and converted into other uses.
ï¿½Over 40 percent of this land conversion was related to growth and development associated with population expansion in the stateï¿½s 25 highest growth counties,ï¿½ reports the Institute for Renewable Natural Resources.
The Texas Land Trust Council is one organization that landowners can utilize when assessing options for rural land preservation or protection through conservation easements or land trusts.
Susan Armstrong, executive director of Texas Land Trust Council, offered advice on conservation easements and choosing a land trust. A land trust is a nonprofit conservation organization that works in partnership with landowners on long-term goals to protect the natural, recreational or historical value of land.
Armstrong said there has been a dramatic increase in the past five years in acreage preserved through land trusts. She noted that there are an estimated 1.4 million acres conserved in more than 40 land trusts in Texas.
She offered tips for finding the right land trust.
Know your goals
Do your research
Set up a meeting with a land trust
Make sure the trust is a match
Go over standards and practices
ï¿½Itï¿½s an interview on both sides,ï¿½ Armstrong said.
Questions to ask a land trust organization include:
What is the mission?
What are the trustï¿½s financials?
How do they decide what project to work on?
How many assets do they already hold?
How is property monitored?
She explained that conservation easements are private, voluntary, unique, perpetual and legal. Armstrong stressed the importance of landowners consulting with experts such as legal and natural resource professionals, when making easement and land trust decisions.
ï¿½One of the greatest things about conservation easements is there are tax benefits,ï¿½ Armstrong said.
The Katy Prairie Conservancy is one land trust that focuses on preserving and conserving coastal prairie systems in Waller, Harris and Fort Bend counties. The nonprofit organization was established in 1992.
ï¿½Thereï¿½s probably 1/10 of 1 percent left of the pristine coastal prairie left in this region,ï¿½ said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy. ï¿½These prairies are still important habitat for upland species. These degraded prairies still have lots of wetlands on them.ï¿½
Piacentini said in some ways, the prairie is more diverse today than before it was settled. She said theyï¿½ve identified 300 species of birds, thousands of species of invertebrates and 300 species of grasses and wildflowers.
ï¿½We are trying to improve habitat - not degrade it,ï¿½ she added.
The conservancy offers options such as purchasing land outright at fair market value or holding easements on privately owned property.
ï¿½You arenï¿½t necessarily giving up your childrenï¿½s inheritance, youï¿½re changing it,ï¿½ Piacentini said.
Legacy Land Trust is an organization that focuses only on conservation easements.
ï¿½We are conservation easement experts,ï¿½ said Jennifer Lorenz, executive director of Legacy Land Trust.
Lorenz explained that they donï¿½t buy land, but buy the development rights. She said they will visit with landowners at their property and go over their goals and expectations for an easement. They will then do a baseline inventory with biologists and naturalists, to begin the process.
ï¿½Our main thing is riparian area corridors,ï¿½ Lorenz said. ï¿½That is our main area of expertise.ï¿½
Landowners also learned about conservation easements offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. These easement programs include the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program, Grasslands Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program. These programs are part of the 2008 Farm Bill.
Claude Ross, NRCS state program manager, provided information such as type and duration of easements, how easement payments are determined, easement uses or restrictions, along with NRCSï¿½ role. Detailed information on these programs can be obtained at NRCS field offices located in almost every county in Texas.
ï¿½This is a partnership. The United States and NRCS can be good partners,ï¿½ Ross said.
Event sponsors included Navasota, Montgomery, Harris County and Washington County Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Private landowners in the stateï¿½s unique coastal prairie region gathered recently at a multicounty workshop to learn about opportunities available for rural land preservation. More than 60 individuals from surrounding counties such as Lee, Walker, Austin, Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend, attended the workshop which focused on conservation easements. Attendees had an opportunity to hear experts speak from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas Coastal Watershed Program, Texas Land Trust Council, Braun & Associates Attorneys at Law, Katy Prairie Conservancy and Legacy Land Trust.