Conservation Easements: Are They for You?

Article excerpt

Driving into the narrow roadway, I feel the solitude and silence envelop me. Towering maples and basswoods arch overhead, forming a natural cathedral. Filtered sunlight plays on the understory of shrubs and wildflowers. Eighty acres of wilderness and a mile of lakeshore in northern Minnesota are preserved for posterity, remaining forever wild.

Sisters Jeanne Rice and Mary Boltuck, both retired teachers, agree that conservation easements like theirs aren't for everyone, but the idea appeals to them and their husbands. The couples gave up 90 percent of the value of their land in one of the first "forever wild" conservation easements in Minnesota.

Mary and Charlie Boltuck were clinical psychologists who turned to college teaching some 30 years ago. They have long owned a cottage just down the road from the easement on Sugar Lake, and they introduced Jeanne and Howard to the area. The 80-acre property, which includes more than a mile of shoreline, is forested primarily with hardwoods such as maple, basswood, and oak.

"More and more people are putting more and more pressure on the lakeshore--with homes, boats, water skiing--and there's less and less room for wildlife," says Howard Rice, a retired Proctor and Gamble engineer who, with Jeanne, spends summers on the Sugar Lake easement. "Unless we take steps to protect shoreline through conservation easements, we won't have the loons, ospreys, eagles, and fish we have now. We can't continually impact the shoreline and the water and expect it to remain the same forever."

A bald-eagle family served as stimulus for the sisters' gift to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Six years ago, Jack Mooty, a biologist with the DNR's non-game wildlife program, wrote the Rices to alert them to the bald eagles living near their land, and asked them not to disturb the nest. After receiving inquiries about developing the land, Jeanne Rice and her sister decided that "we wanted one small place on the lake left the way nature made it." They approached Jack Mooty for a way to realize their dream.

"The day he came out to see the land, Jack inadvertently scuffed up a small maple seedling," Mary says. "When he bent down and carefully replanted that tree, we knew we had found the right person to help us." Five years later, thanks to Jack Mooty and Jane Prohaska, regional counsel for the Minnesota chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the sisters reached their goal.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement by which a landowner voluntarily restricts or limits the type and amount of development that may take place on his or her property. Each easement's restrictions are tailored to the particular piece of property, the interests of the individual owner, and the resource being protected. These restrictions legally bind the present and future owners of the property.

The first American conservation easements were written in the late 1880s to protect parkways in and around Boston, according to a history of easements published by the Land Trust Alliance in 1985. The most extensive early use of easements was by the National Park Service in the 1930s along the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace Parkways. Another early federal use in the same era was the creation of "refuge and flowage" easements in the Prairie Pothole region of Minnesota and the Dakotas by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The first historic preservation easements sprang up in the 1970s. An increasing number of states began passing conservation easement laws--a 1984 report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed 44 states with such legislation. More have since been added.

In setting up the Sugar Lake easement, the sisters and Jack Mooty spent five years finding just the right fit for the land. Mary and Jeanne did not want the land open to hunters, as it would have been if it were given to the DNR for wildlife management. Jane Prohaska helped draft a conservation easement to create a natural sanctuary that will be forever wild and establishes a protected environment for native plant and animal life. …