Challenges for Public Lands, Conservation Easements Continue Across Midwest

Contact: Kent Keene, Assistant Manager, Lower Midwestern States and Agriculture Policy

  • On March 24, Oklahoma HB 3280 passed out of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, albeit with a stricken title.
  • OK HB 3280 joins a growing list of bills from across the Midwest that seeks to cap land ownership by the state and federal governments and limit the length of conservation easements established voluntarily on private lands.
  • This growing trend represents a significant challenge for sportsmen and women specifically, and all conservationists in general, who work with federal, state, and private landowners to implement science-based and widely supported conservation efforts that provide critical access. 

Why It Matters: Politically charged conversations have increasingly found themselves entering the realm of sportsmen’s issues as they relate to public lands. Some have even begun to spill over into conversations about voluntary conservation programs available for private landowners. While many of these discussions claim to focus on ensuring private lands remain available for the next generation, it is important to remember the role of public lands in supporting local and state economies through outdoor recreation. Further, it is critical that supporters of conservation continue to point out that private land conservation programs, including easements, are entered into voluntarily by informed landowners who should have the ability to make such decisions regarding their lands.

Through House Bill 3280 (HB 3280), Oklahoma joined a growing list of states who have seen efforts to cap the ability of the federal and state government to acquire and own land within the state. HB 3280 seeks to limit federal and state land ownership to no more than 10% of the lands in Oklahoma. Further, the legislation seeks to cap the length of conservation easements on private lands to no more than 30 years. This year alone, similar efforts have cropped up in Iowa and Nebraska, though fortunately neither of those have seen much progress.

Efforts to cap public lands represent a tremendous threat to sportsmen and women, many of whom rely on public lands for access to our time-honored traditions. Not only does this impact the ability of many to participate in the activities that each of us hold dear, but it represents a significant threat to the future of conservation efforts supported through the “user pays – public benefits” American System of Conservation Funding that relies on the participation of sportsmen and women. Further, limited access options pose a challenge for many rural economies that are reliant on tourism revenue driven by outdoor recreation.

While proponents of limiting government land ownership often cite concerns related to topics like eminent domain, it is important to point out that most land acquisitions for conservation and public access are conducted between government entities and willing sellers who cherish the idea of their property being used to support conservation efforts and provide opportunities for other sportsmen and women. The same is often true for conservation easements in which landowners voluntarily work with government agencies, land trusts, or similar parties to develop a conservation program designed to ensure that their properties are protected and conserved for generations, often in exchange for payment, tax credits, or other incentives.

Oklahoma HB 3280 was narrowly passed out of the House on March 24, though its title was stricken. This process in Oklahoma means that, should the bill receive support in the Senate, the bill must be returned to the House to have its title restored before it can be passed and sent to the Governor. Right now, HB 3280 awaits consideration in the Senate.

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