By CSF Central Appalachian States Coordinator John Culclasure
Growing up in the Carolinas, I had access to what felt like endless places to hunt, fish and explore. Whether it was land I had permission to use or a hunting lease my grandfather secured, I always had a place to run our bird dogs or wet a line. About the time I was in high school, however, many of the old farms and tracts of timber in my Western North Carolina home were being developed into subdivisions.
Friends lost access to their hunting grounds, and we were at risk of losing the hunting lease dear to my heart – the place where I heard my first gobble at sunrise, harvested my first deer and learned a great deal about the outdoors and myself. The landowner was a true mountain man with a love for hunting and the land we both loved had been in his family for generations, but he was a “land rich, cash poor” octogenarian and developers were knocking on his door with an eye towards another subdivision off-limits to hunting. Fast forward a few years and many worried nights, this land is still used for hunting but is now permanently protected from development by a conservation easement.
As my friends and I experienced, access is one of the biggest impediments to hunter recruitment, retention and reactivation. As lands are subdivided and developed, less land is available to hunt. One tool to ensure that farms, working forests and other open space is conserved for wildlife, hunting and other traditional uses is a conservation easement.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified organization in which the landowner voluntary agrees to limit certain types of development and uses (e.g. intense subdivision) to protect specific conservation values such as wildlife habitat, agricultural land or water resources. While the landowner relinquishes certain development rights, all other rights incidental to property ownership are retained by the landowner. The landowner may sell, donate, lease, mortgage, and exclude others from their property, but the terms of the easement are binding on successive landowners.
Conservation easements are either perpetual or term and can be donated, sold or a combination of the two. Federal income tax and estate tax benefits are available to donors of perpetual conservation easements, and state income tax and local property tax benefits may be available. Local land trusts, public agencies and many hunting conservation organizations hold conservation easements. The terms of each conservation easement are unique to each property and are tailored to meet the goals of the landowner and easement holder.
Typical rights retained include the right to hunt, fish, trap, farm, camp, plant food plots, harvest timber, and make other natural resource restorations that improve fish or wildlife habitat. Conservation easements may reduce the value of the property, but because rights like harvesting timber, farming, leasing and limited development are retained, the land holds economic value in addition to the conservation values that are protected.
The land where I learned to hunt continues to provide income with the conservation easement in place. The family still leases their land for hunting and harvests timber from its slopes. While it may end up in the hands of another family down the road, the terms of the conservation easement will be binding on all successive owners ensuring that it will never be developed but instead managed for wildlife habitat and not foreclosed to hunting in perpetuity. Conservation easements may not be appropriate for every property, but for landowners interested in conserving their hunting property or family farm, a conservation easement may be the right fit.
Some conservation easements grant public access, but all ensure that the land and its wildlife habitat will not be converted into a subdivision where hunting is largely foreclosed. I realize now how fortunate I was growing up to have places to hunt and fish, and I take solace knowing that conservation easements protect land for future generations of hunters and anglers.