Forever Wild

Conservation easements are a powerful tool for protecting vital waterfowl habitat on private lands

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By Darin Blunck

Earlier this year Ducks Unlimited reached another milestone in its mission to conserve wetlands and waterfowl habitat throughout the United States. This spring DU accepted its 400th conservation easement in its land stewardship portfolio. Together, these easements protect 360,000 acres, placing DU among the 15 largest land trusts in the nation (according to the Land Trust Alliance). DU Canada has secured more than 600 conservation easements from private landowners on almost 140,000 acres of waterfowl habitat, largely in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Conservation easements are a powerful tool available to conservation groups and private landowners for protecting key landscapes threatened by sprawl or other forms of development. A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement restricting land-use activities that would degrade the property's value to waterfowl and other wildlife. These easements remain in effect in perpetuity—forever—even if the property is transferred to other family members or sold to an unrelated buyer.

DU accepts or purchases conservation easements from private landowners in high-priority focus areas of key importance to waterfowl. Each DU conservation easement is specifically crafted to address the needs of waterfowl and the desires of the landowner. Typically the landowner gives up the right to alter or convert habitat, construct buildings, and subdivide the property. But landowners typically retain the right to hunt and control access to the property. Grazing and timber management can also continue as long as these activities do not adversely affect wetlands, waterfowl, and other wildlife.

DU accepted its first conservation easement in 1991 on a 335-acre parcel in South Carolina's historic Lowcountry. The "Church Tract," named for an old Baptist Church on an adjoining property, contains a duck-friendly mix of bottomland hardwood forest, freshwater wetlands, and tidal creeks and marshes. Wintering blue- and green-winged teal and resident wood ducks are common in the area's wetlands.

DU continues to work with landowners throughout the Lowcountry and along the Mid-Atlantic Coast to protect properties like the Church Tract. DU also accepts donated conservation easements in many other high-priority areas. In November 2009, M.O. "Mo" Buder, owner and manager of the Whistling Wings Duck Club in St. Charles County, Missouri, donated an easement on this 780-acre property located in the Confluence Focus Area. This easement will protect land in the Mississippi River floodplain from commercial development—a threat steadily changing the landscape throughout this vital area for migrating and wintering waterfowl. Whistling Wings is among a growing number of properties protected with conservation easements that form a buffer against approaching sprawl in the floodplain. In addition to this generous easement donation, Buder plans to ultimately leave Whistling Wings to Ducks Unlimited in his estate plan.

On the other end of the country in California's Sacramento Valley, DU works with farmers to protect agricultural land cultivated for rice production from urban sprawl. In winter, pintails, other dabbling ducks, geese, and a variety of other waterbirds rely on flooded rice fields for food and refuge.

While many easement donors are motivated by a strong conservation ethic and a passion for the ducks, federal income tax benefits are another important incentive for donating a conservation easement to DU.

Increasing human populations are also competing with farmers for limited water supplies traditionally used for irrigation purposes. By securing conservation easements with rice farmers in this region, DU is helping to protect rice fields that support wintering pintails and other waterfowl. In addition, easements ensure these properties retain all existing water rights in perpetuity. Thus easements not only help secure a bright future for waterfowl, but also for rice farming and the region's broader agricultural economy.

While many easement donors are motivated by a strong conservation ethic and a passion for the ducks, federal income tax benefits are another important incentive for donating a conservation easement to DU. Because easement restrictions on land-use reduce the market value of the property, the U.S. Congress provides federal tax incentives to encourage this practice. An appraisal determines the value of the easement by comparing the property value before and after the easement restrictions were in place. The federal tax code allows landowners to deduct up to 30 percent of an easement's value from their annual adjusted gross income (AGI). Any unused portion of the easement value may be carried over and used for another five years.

DU and the Land Trust Alliance are presently working with Congress to reinstate and make permanent an enhanced tax benefit for conservation easements that expired in December 2009. This enhanced benefit allowed donors to deduct up to 50 percent of an easement's value from their annual AGI, and remaining easement value could be carried forward for another 15 years. In addition, a special provision was included allowing certain farmers and ranchers who donate conservation easements to deduct up to 100 percent of their income.

DU volunteer Melinda Beck of Denver, Colorado, is a lawyer who advises both land trusts and landowners on conservation easement issues. "People who work the land for a living are at times land rich and cash poor and may not earn sufficient income to deduct the full value of their gift under current tax rules," she says. "Making permanent the enhanced incentive will allow eligible farmers and ranchers to deduct more of their income each year and encourage partnerships between DU and members of rural communities. It's good for farmers and ranchers, and it's good for the ducks."

Easements are vital to rescuing the duck factory

Among the greatest threats currently facing waterfowl populations is the loss of native grassland in the Prairie Pothole Region. When this vital habitat is converted to other uses, the impact on breeding ducks is twofold. First, when large tracts of upland cover are lost or fragmented, nesting success and hen survival decline dramatically on the landscape. Second, wetland quality and integrity is also adversely impacted by sedimentation and agricultural runoff. Degraded wetlands support fewer broods and provide less nutritional resources for pairs of ducks arriving on the breeding grounds in spring. Thus grassland easements not only protect vital upland nesting cover, but also the wetlands that drive the productivity of the Duck Factory.

For more than a decade, Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have worked together to purchase grassland easements from willing ranchers and protect vital native prairie in the Dakotas and Montana.

In 2008, DU launched the Rescue the Duck Factory campaign to raise additional funding specifically for grassland easements. Since the campaign began, donations made by DU's passionate and generous supporters have helped protect 130,000 acres of the most important waterfowl habitat on this continent. Over the past decade, DU, the USFWS, and private landowners have permanently protected 918,550 acres of grasslands and wetlands on the U.S. prairies via easements.

Darin Blunck is director of conservation programs at DU national headquarters in Memphis.

For more information on DU's efforts to reinstate and make permanent an enhanced tax benefit for conservation easement donors, visit the DU Public Policy web page at www.ducks.org/publicpolicy and sign up for the weekly Conservation Issues Briefing e-newsletter to stay current on this and other public policy priorities.