The Conservation Gift That Benefits Us For Countless Years to Come

January 4, 2018

This ranch in southwest Montana was protected for future generations by an NRCS-funded conservation easement. Photo: Jim Berkey, The Nature Conservancy

by Brianna Randall, Sage Grouse Initiative, as appeared on the USDA Blog

As we bid farewell to the holiday season, it’s a good time to take stock of the gifts we received—and the gifts we gave—that mean the most. Conserving our natural resources is one of the ways we can give back to our children, communities, and economy for years to come. And the gift that keeps on giving is a conservation easement.

Conservation easements keep agricultural lands working for future generations. They also benefit wildlife, water quality, grasslands and soil.

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified organization, like a land trust, that compensates landowners for placing some restrictions on the use of a property in order to protect its natural values.

For instance, easements are sometimes designed to limit subdivision development. This helps keep farms and ranches intact, ensuring our nation’s food security. Producers also use easements as a way to stay sustainable and profitable, or as a tool for passing on their land to their children.

Through the Farm Bill, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides financial and technical resources that help landowners and partners protect the places that matter most. This year, NRCS plans to invest $250 million through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).

Eric Hansen worked with Jim Berkey of The Nature Conservancy to place an easement on his working ranch in Montana.

Eric Hansen worked with Jim Berkey of The Nature Conservancy to place an easement on his working ranch in Montana.

ACEP focuses on conserving our nation’s most productive grasslands, wetlands, and agricultural lands by providing funding to conservation partners to purchase easements on private working lands. 

“Protecting these lands preserves our heritage, natural resources and open space,” says Tom Hedt, Acting State Conservationist for NRCS in Montana.

Eric Hansen agrees with that sentiment and is one of the program’s biggest supporters in Montana.  He is currently working with NRCS and The Nature Conservancy to place an easement on his ranch in Dillon, Montana. “I want my daughter to run this ranch someday. I want this to be a working ranch and that is why an easement appealed to me. It needs to stay a ranch like it is, for as far as you can see, a ranch, one ranch,” said Hansen.

In Montana, agricultural land easements are also a large part of the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative’s strategy for addressing threats to the imperiled sage grouse—especially in areas where there’s a high risk of cropland conversion or development, which reduce sagebrush grazing lands and fragment habitat.

Beautifully protected, land like this has been designated as part of Montana’s core area for ACEP over the next several years.

Beautifully protected, land like this has been designated as part of Montana’s core area for conservation easements over the next several years.

Certain ACEP easements compensate landowners for maintaining the healthy, diverse native plants that sage grouse and 350 other species rely on, while continuing to provide grazing resources. Other types of easements enhance the wet, green habitats that birds, wildlife, and livestock need during the West’s hot, dry summer and fall.

In 2017, Montana NRCS, landowners, and land trust partners collaborated on more than 90,000 acres of easements in sage grouse habitat totaling around $22 million—the most acres protected of any state, and one-third of the national total for NRCS easements.

Montana NRCS owes much of its success to incredible local partners, whose hard work is paying off for natural resources, ranchers, and communities.

And conservation momentum is on the rise, in Montana and across the country. Help start 2018 off with a flourish by spreading the word that easements are the gift that gives forever.

Contact your USDA service center to learn more about financial and technical resources available for agricultural easements.

Learn more about conservation easements >

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.