Conservation Easements Keep Working Forests Working

Many of us foresters have experienced the frustration of seeing our work come to naught because forestland we’ve been managing gets subdivided or because a new landowner was more interested in short-term profits than in sustainable management. When the forested tracts become residential, or the full tree cover of a property is removed, it will be a very long time, if ever, before another forester can think of management on those acres. There is a way, however, for a forester to ensure that the ground they are managing today will always be available for a full spectrum of management activities in the future.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement, usually in the form of a deed, between a property owner and a conservation organization (public or private). The deed protects specific conservation values of a property by restricting activities that may negatively affect those values. These restrictions are applied in perpetuity, which means that the document is binding on all future owners of the land. The conservation organization receiving the easement deed has the responsibility of monitoring activities on the land and enforcing the terms of the agreement, forever.

By using a tool called a working forest conservation easement (WFCE), foresters and landowners can protect managed forests from development and keep a working forest working. I’m not talking about a lock-it-up-forever conservation easement or a state program with its buy-your-way-out assessment. WCFEs are a refinement of the basic conservation easement deed that has been in use for over 30 years in the Northeast.

The WFCE prevents development while the management plan ensures ongoing ecosystem services and a sustainable flow of products to the public. That’s where the real benefit of this type of easement has implications for foresters. While for some people just protecting the land from development is the ultimate goal, foresters should be thinking of protecting land that can then be managed.

Happily, a forester’s inputs and actions are required at several key steps within the easement process. The first place foresters can get involved with WFCEs is by discussing their use with interested landowners. In preparation for that discussion, the forester and the landowner would be wise to review two small texts on WFCEs: the first, Working Forest Conservation Easements: A Process Guide for Land Trusts, Landowners, and Public Agencies, by Brenda Lind, is available through the Land Trust Alliance at www.landtrustalliance.org/resources. The second text, Ensuring Sustainable Forestry through Working Forest Conservation Easements in the Northeast, by Robert T. Perschel, is available through the Forest Guild at www.forestguild.org/publications. In just an evening of reading, a forester or landowner can get a fairly good picture of what they may be entering into.

A forester’s professional input can also be quite valuable during the negotiations that lead up to drafting the easement document. After all, it may well be the forester’s management plan that gets incorporated into the easement and sets the direction of all future activities on the land. Once the document is accepted, the easement will need to be monitored forever. That’s a big job. Having a knowledgeable forester who is familiar with the resources and the continuing management activities on the property is invaluable to the easement steward responsible for the annual monitoring.

I know foresters who have reservations about some conservation easements because they can limit the type and flexibility of management, restrict silvicultural options, and remove the future ability to apply scientific management techniques not yet developed. A good working forest conservation easement, however, can solve these problems by including the comprehensive management plan as an appendix to the easement document. In addition, provisions in the easement should be made for the plan to be periodically updated, incorporating new science and keeping the plan meaningful in a changing global environment.

On the other side of this discussion are foresters who believe that only prescriptive or highly regulatory documents can ensure continued good management of the property under easement. Because easements are forever, limiting options in the present may one day cause the entire document to be questioned if it can no longer support the purposes for which it was created. With a changing climate, the potential for massive species death due to insects or disease, and an increasing number of catastrophic weather events, it makes sense that the document allow for some adjustment to things we have not yet encountered. That’s just good planning.

Most foresters are full of faith. They have faith in the long term benefits of what they do. They believe that the natural environment contains at least some of the solutions to the problems plaguing mankind. Working forest conservation easements are a strong tool to keep land protected from development and fragmentation, while at the same time promoting sustainable long-term management of that land to provide the public with a broad range of ecosystem services.

Who better than foresters to see the importance of this kind of insurance policy?

George Frame is a conservation easement steward for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, located in Concord, New Hampshire. He is immediate past chair of the New England Society of American Foresters and a member of the Forest Guild.

 
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