A breakdown: Conservation Easements
One motivation behind landowners voluntarily entering into perpetual agriculture conservation easements is to protect their agriculture heritage, land productivity and to keep their land intact. “Landowners see our Ag conservation easements as a way to protect their ranches, for land conservation and to be able to pass them on to future generations,” said Jessica Crowder, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust.
Agriculture conservation easements are a voluntary, legally recorded permanent deed restriction that is placed on a specific property used for agriculture production, to preserve the property for future generations. The easements can either be donated to a land trust or organization, or purchased outright with funds from private donations, nonprofit groups, federal, state and local governments. In many cases the landowner is paid for up to 75 percent of the value with the remaining 25 percent considered a donation. The value of conservation easements are determined by qualified appraisers, the land value is determined before the easement and subtracts the land value after the easement. The difference is the value of the easement. In cases of the landowner donating all or part of the easement they may receive important tax benefits. But it is up to each individual county assessor on how they classify land after an easement is filed. In some cases crop land is reclassified as range land so lowering the rate but if cropland is now classified as recreational land the rate might increase, noted Brad Soncksen, Nebraska Assistant State Conservationist for Programs.
The Farm Bill provides a significant portion of the funds for conservation easement purchases. The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program into the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Under this new program the Natural Resource Conservation District (NRCS), helps state and local governments, land trusts and tribes protect agriculture lands from development and other non-ag uses. These easements include Agriculture Land Easements (ALE) and Wetland Reserve Easements.
In the 2018 Farm Bill, the conservation title of the budget makes up seven percent of the bill’s total projected mandatory spending over ten years, so 60 billion of the total 867 billion dollars. The largest land retirement program, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was expanded and reauthorized by increasing the CRP enrollment limit in annual increments from 24 million acres in 2019 to 27 million acres by 2023. According to the Land Trust Alliance, the 2018 Farm Bill increased funding for ACEP from 250 million to 450 million dollars a year, it also included numerous provisions to streamline the ALE process. One provision permits eligible entities to purchase farm or ranch land with the intent of holding for a limited period of time, use ALE to secure an easement to protect the property and sell the land to a farmer or rancher at the agriculture value.
Easements are recorded at the county courthouse and a deed is filed, the easements are monitored by either the government or by the organization the easement is partnered with, usually on an annual basis. “Landowners own the property, pay the taxes and they can sell the land and the easement is transferred to the new owner. Some Ag land easements have stipulations that the easement has to be sold as a whole,” said Soncksen.
The USDA website announced that by April 2, 2021, the USDA and private landowners have partnered to protect more than 5 million acres of wetlands, grasslands and prime farmland, an area the size of New Jersey. Since October 2020 the NRCS has enrolled 110,000 acres in new conservation easements. Currently agricultural land easements, including grassland easements, total more than 1.9 million acres. The National Conservation Easement Database has compiled conservation easement records throughout the United States; their website states that non-governmental organizations hold the greatest percent of collected conservation easements by acreage. Their database is working to provide a comprehensive picture of the estimated 40 million acres of conservation easement lands in the United States. They currently have an estimated 60 percent of all U.S easement mapped; with over 130,000 easements, totaling 24.7 million acres listed.
“We recognize conservation easements as a valuable tool for land owners to pass on their land. Clean air, water, wildlife habit, all of that is vital to preserve, our ranchers are the best stewards of the land, and we are committed to having the tools in place for those who want to reach their goals, they are our providers of food and fiber,” Crowder said.
Margaret Byfield of American Stewards of Liberty cautions that conservation easement agreements can be entered into with numerous different trusts and organizations completely voluntarily by the land owner. But once the paperwork is filed those perpetual easements can be sold to other land trusts or even the federal government without even consulting the landowner. The property owner holds the title but the control is held by whoever holds the easement.
Soncksen said that easements are ways to protect the land and to keep it in agriculture, so it is not developed and is preserved for wildlife habit and recreation use. “Keeping ag land as ag land.”
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