By Chris Sebastian
Behind many of the acres conserved for waterfowl is a team of people with a shared passion for wetlands and other wildlife habitats. This is especially true for Ducks Unlimited's lands program, which works with private landowners and conservation partners to protect important areas for wildlife. The team accomplishes this by acquiring land or conservation easements through donations, bargain sales, or full-price purchases.
The key players on this team are landowners who want to leave a lasting legacy for their children and wildlife. Because so much of the land across the United States is privately owned, Ducks Unlimited cannot achieve its conservation mission without the help of these landowners and the DU staff who guide them through the variety of options available.
David Muchow's family was one of the first to settle in the central part of Minnesota, and he has spent a lifetime in the agricultural community. Muchow had the opportunity to sell some of his land near Indian Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA), and he wanted to protect it for future generations. "I think that a lot of land should be in its natural state," Muchow said. "As you get older you see how people have affected wildlife and the natural state of things."
In the Minnesota portion of the Prairie Pothole Region, only 10 percent of wetlands and one percent of native prairie remain, so landowners like Muchow are essential to protecting existing habitats there. "We work only with willing landowners," said Jon Schneider, Ducks Unlimited's manager of conservation programs for the Living Lakes Initiative, which focuses on conserving shallow-water habitat for waterfowl from central Iowa to northern Minnesota. "David grew up hunting the land and farming the land. He wants to give something back and understands why we are interested in restoring land for wildlife and public use."
After Ducks Unlimited's conservation team spent time with Muchow and had his property appraised, DU purchased nearly 160 acres using money from Minnesota's Outdoor Heritage Fund. Muchow agreed to sell it to DU for less than market price and donate the difference to the organization. DU can now use that donation as a match for future federal or state grants, compounding the value of Muchow's land transaction.
Restoration of the land has already begun, and it will eventually be turned over to Indian Lake WMA for permanent protection and public access. "David recognized that this is a piece of land that should be restored to wildlife habitat and managed as such long-term," Schneider said.
Keep Your Land, Help the Ducks
In addition to buying properties, Ducks Unlimited's lands program staff protects thousands of acres each year by helping landowners secure conservation easements on their properties. Conservation easements allow the landowner to retain ownership of a property while prohibiting certain types of development and conversion. These easements can meet the needs of interested owners of working farms, ranches, timberlands, sporting properties, and recreational lands who wish to protect valuable natural resources.
Unlike a utility easement, which gives companies the right to manage and make changes to the land, a conservation easement awards no ownership rights to the easement holder; it simply prohibits specified practices that could have a detrimental impact on wildlife habitat. It means, for example, that a piece of land will never be used for cell-phone towers or subdivisions. Landowners often retain the rights to hunt, farm, graze livestock, harvest timber, maintain trail systems, and plant food plots, among many other uses.
This was important for several families on Davis Island, about 20 miles southwest of Vicksburg, Mississippi. This island in the Mississippi River boasts important waterfowl habitat and historical heritage sites. It also lies within the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, a region that has lost 80 percent of its historical wetland habitats.
Ducks Unlimited worked with the Dale and Kastner families to protect more than 5,000 acres on Davis Island through conservation easements. "These easements protect crucially important bottomland hardwood forests and cultural assets while providing the easement donors with tremendous tax benefits," said Tim Willis, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited. "Fortunately, Congress made the enhanced tax incentives for donated easements permanent this year. We expect that move to make it easier for property owners to plan conservation easements going forward."
A New Future on the Farm
Missouri DU supporter Nick Reding and his father became interested in a conservation easement when they decided to restore a 425-acre former farm field outside St. Louis back to wetland habitat. The land sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, across from the mouth of the Illinois River. When the land became available, Reding and his father bought it with the plan to make it a self-sustaining, multiuse property. It had been farmed for generations, but not always successfully. About 250 acres flooded regularly, resulting in crop insurance claims. Reding partnered with Ducks Unlimited to establish a conservation easement on all 425 acres. "It feels great as a landowner and as a conservationist, as someone who looks around in every direction and sees significant loss of habitat. This is a significant gain of habitat," he said.
Between 2012 and 2015, Reding estimates that he saw just nine turkeys on his property. Today, he regularly sees groups of 15 to 20. Monarch butterflies have returned in large numbers. Reding and his family use the land for duck and deer hunting, creating new memories and outdoor opportunities. "One of the things that drives me crazy is when people say, ‘once you lose habitat, it's gone forever,'" he said. "Fact is, when it's gone it can come back. It takes planning and money, but it can come back."
Leader in Land Protection
DU established its first conservation easement in 1991. Since then, the organization has protected more than 439,000 acres through 550 easements. In fiscal year 2018, Ducks Unlimited protected more than 15,000 acres through 16 conservation easements.
When landowners donate land or conservation easements to be held by Ducks Unlimited, their generosity allows DU to leverage that donated value to protect additional habitat elsewhere. In many cases, DU partners with other conservation groups to maximize impact on the ground. "Ducks Unlimited realized the efficiency of strong partnerships a long time ago," said Geoffrey Cripe, Ducks Unlimited real estate specialist in the Great Lakes/Atlantic Region. "We have a successful track record of securing funding as well as providing engineering and administrative capacity, and we often work together with our partners to identify the best opportunities to pursue. The result is conservation on the ground no matter who is taking the lead."
Want to Help?
Conservation partnerships work best when all parties involved realize some benefits. Contact Ducks Unlimited to learn about the numerous ways you can gain valuable tax benefits while helping conserve wetlands and associated habitats. Visit ducks.org/lands for more information and DU contacts in your area.
Chris Sebastian is public affairs coordinator in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.