For more than four decades, The Nature Conservancy has been using conservation easements to protect more of a landscape from development than could be accomplished through outright purchase. We have joined with many others, from public agencies to other land trusts, to keep landscapes intact and habitat unfragmented through the use of easements.
In the mid-1970s, at the request of landowners in Montana, the Conservancy helped build the foundation of what would become the state's enabling legislation for conservation easements. Soon after, the Conservancy accepted a donation of a conservation easement covering 1,800 acres on the Blackfoot River – the state's first conservation easement.
Today some 30,254 acres in the Blackfoot Valley are covered by conservation easements, representing 50 miles of the river made famous in Norman Maclean's book, A River Runs Through It. It is one of the most intact, unfragmented landscapes in all of Montana. Across the state, 30 years later, conservation easements now protect some 1.4 million acres.
Larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Olympic national parks combined, the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park is a high-elevation plateau of arctic tundra hosting spruce grouse and other northern boreal species rarely found in the continental United States. It is also home to 130,000 year-round residents.
Adirondack Park is a mixture of public and private land. Some 2.5 million acres are under the "Forever Wild" protection status of the Adirondack Forest Preserve; the remaining 3.5 million acres are privately owned. For more than a century, people have helped protect the integrity of the park by limiting use on their private land. But today the Adirondacks face pressure from second-home development on lakeshores and road-building into once-remote areas.
The Nature Conservancy/Adirondack Land Trust (a joint partnership since 1988) holds conservation easements on 70,000 acres of private land in the greater Adirondack region, including the Champlain Valley. The state holds easements on 270,000 acres of private land outside the forest preserve. All told, some 340,000 acres of the 3.5 million acres of private land in the Adirondacks, including working timberlands and farms, are protected by conservation easements.
Running from Alberta, Canada, south into Montana, the Rocky Mountain Front marks the easternmost edge of a functioning wilderness. Bounded to the west by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Glacier National Park and other strongholds of public land, the mostly private lands of the Front host grizzly bears in their native Great Plains habitat – the only place in the world where this phenomenon can still be witnessed. With the exception of bison, all of the native mammals that inhabited this landscape when Lewis and Clark passed through survive here. It has been described as "America's Serengeti," and is ranked in the top one percent of important wildlife habitat in the United States.
The Nature Conservancy works in these private lands to protect prime bear habitat along the Front. One of the most successful protection tools has been conservation easements. We have partnered with many working ranchers along the Front to place conservation easements on their properties, helping give them the means to continue their traditional way of life and livelihoods while private lands are protected from the threat of subdivision into the future. On the Blackfeet Reservation, we assisted in the creation of a tribal land trust – the first in the country – to secure easements. Together with the Conservancy's Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, 45,000 acres of the Front are protected through easements or Conservancy ownership.
In northwestern Wisconsin, the Bois Brule River flows north and drains into Lake Superior, its watershed blanketed by northern hardwoods and remnant stands of old-growth white and red pine. In the upper river region, habitat preservation and protection of the Brule's forests have been hallmarks of private property ownership for generations. Fifty years ago, private landowners banded together to form a corporation to purchase and hold a large parcel that was up for sale, to protect it from any future residential or commercial development.
In the early 1980s, searching for a stronger means of protecting the river from development and increased recreational pressures, local landowners launched a conservation easement program with The Nature Conservancy. Today, conservation easements protect more than 90 percent of the privately owned riparian habitat along the upper stretch of the Brule. The Conservancy has negotiated 23 easements covering nearly 5,000 acres of the 8,320-acre Cedar Bog/Brule Spillway Conservation Area.
Since its creation in 1872, Yellowstone National Park has been an icon of conservation. Widely assumed to be a self-contained, viable protected area, the park is actually part of a larger landscape known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). The long-term viability of the park's ecosystem processes depends upon the much larger complex of federal, state and private lands—27 million acres in all—that make up the GYE.
Although private lands constitute slightly less than a third of the GYE, these private lands are disproportionately valuable both ecologically and economically. They are the surrounding lands – often farms and ranches – that buffer the park and national forest. They are the breeding grounds and migratory corridors for elk, bears, bison and wolves. And they are the lands that come up for sale, bringing the threat of development up to the boundary of the park.
Of the 8.3 million acres of private land in the GYE, some 500,000 acres are protected through conservation easements. More than half, or 259,000 acres, were negotiated by The Nature Conservancy. Conservancy easements can be found in the Centennial Valley of Montana, along the Henry's Fork in Idaho and in the Absoraka Range in Wyoming. In the GYE, 18 percent of private land is in some form of conservation status, thanks to conservation easements, and easements will be a critical conservation tool in the protection of the 2.7 million acres of priority private land not yet protected from development.
Stretching across four northeastern states and into Canada, the Northern Forest covers a vast region – 31 million acres of spruce, fir and northern hardwoods. Compared to much of the East, the Northern Forest is relatively unfragmented – the largest remaining forest in the eastern United States. Conservation easements are helping keep many spectacular landscapes of the forest intact.
The largest transaction in the Conservancy’s history in New York State was the $9.1 million purchase in 2002 of 45,000 acres in the remote interior of the Tug Hill Plateau, located between Lake Ontario and the Adirondack Mountains. This area is large enough to support healthy forest ecosystems and wildlife populations. The long-term management plan for the site will involve a partnership with New York State, local community groups and a private timber company that will work in the area, subject to conservation easements overseen by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation allowing ecologically sound logging to take place.
Beginning in 2002, the Conservancy worked with the state Agency of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Champion International, Essex Timber and others on a 133,000-acre project. Under the agreement, some 26,000 acres became part of the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge; 84,000 acres are now held by Essex Timber Company, with sustainable forestry and public access easements held by the State of Vermont and Vermont Land Trust; and the Conservancy co-holds conservation easements on 22,000 acres now known as the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area, owned by the State of Vermont and encompassing a 12,500-acre ecological reserve.
In 2002, the Conservancy joined with the Trust for Public Land, the State of New Hampshire, Lyme Timber and International Paper on a 171,000-acre project at the northern tip of the state. The project established a 25,000-acre ecological reserve and a conservation easement on 146,000 acres of forest on which timber will be harvested using ecologically compatible methods. A year earlier, the Conservancy and a private timber investor protected roughly 19,000 acres in northern New Hampshire. Known as the Bunnell Tract, the project established a 10,700-acre ecological reserve within more than 8,000 acres of sustainably managed forest under conservation easement.
The Katahdin Forest Project is an agreement between the Conservancy and Great Northern Paper designed to protect both jobs and forestland around Baxter State Park, Maine's largest public land holding. Under the terms of the agreement, the Conservancy purchased $50 million of existing loans to Great Northern Paper, retiring $14 million of it and refinancing the balance at less than half of the previous interest rate. In exchange, the company placed a conservation easement on 200,000 acres of forestland around Baxter State Park, which will ensure sustainable forestry practices are used in the harvesting of timber. In addition, the company transferred 41,000 acres to the Conservancy for the establishment of an ecological reserve. In September of 2003, the Conservancy, the state and International Paper joined together to protect nearly 25,000 acres and 210 miles of shoreline along the Machias River. The project places a conservation easement on some 18,500 acres – again ensuring sustainable forestry – and protects another 6,500 acres as an ecological reserve.