What are the benefits of conservation easements?
The largest exchange of wealth in world history is occurring as the aging make final decisions about their legacy. But, with the possible return of the death tax and the changing future of farming in California, which road should be taken? Ag Alert® delves more deeply into this important and timely topic:
- Part 1: Legacy Lost
- Part 2: Redefining tradition
- Part 3: Branching Out
- Part 4: A living legacy
Montna Farms is one of California's largest rice operations. And, thanks to a 1,200-acre conservation easement set up a few years ago, the family's home ranch also is a haven for wildlife.
"Rice is a commodity that's known for being wildlife friendly, especially for migratory waterfowl," said Ryan Bonea, Sutter County Resource Conservation District manager. "Putting an easement on the family farm can not only help keep it in production, it also can help retain features of the land that are beneficial to a variety of species.
"Landowners are the front-line conservationists. They're the ones out there keeping the landscape beautiful and productive every day. In my opinion, the farmers are doing a great job."
Although private lands where these easements have been purchased usually aren't open to the public, Bonea said that's a benefit because it protects wildlife. Publicly held land sometimes doesn't adequately shield habitat and wildlife from human intrusion.
Experts on conservation easements say farmers use them as estate planning tools for a number of reasons:
- A love of the land and the satisfaction of knowing the land will not be subdivided and developed;
- The desire to leave a legacy for future generations to remember and enjoy;
- Income tax savings;
- State tax savings.
Each conservation easement is unique in that it reflects the values of the individual landowner and the organization or agency that purchases and monitors it. In the case of Montna Farms, Ducks Unlimited worked with the California Department of Conservation's Farmland Conservation Program to establish protection for waterfowl habitat.
The easement calls for annual monitoring by Ducks Unlimited and a careful documentation process to ensure that all future landowners abide by the requirements in the conservation easement.
"Protecting habitat is a way to give something back to the community, which has supported me and my family for more than 100 years," Montna said. "We get a lot of interest in the property from the public when there are waterfowl here. They want to come in and see.
"Whole families will park their cars out by the highway and walk into our fields," he said. "We let them in, but remind them it's private property and that we're protecting valuable habitat and wildlife populations."
Michael Lawler, president of the Yolo County Audubon Society, said, "A lot of our birding trips are done with the permission of landowners in the Sacramento Valley.
"We strongly support maintaining and protecting open space to ensure healthy bird populations. We know how lucky we are here in the Sacramento Valley given the diversity of birds found here."
The Sutter County Board of Supervisors has just recommended that a second wildlife habitat conservation easement be placed on another Montna farm. Larry Bagley, assistant director of community services for Sutter County, said the county and its residents have long been supportive of this approach to maintaining healthy wildlife populations within its borders.
Bagley said, "These easements allow a sharing of the land between the farmers who work it and the creatures who need it to flourish."