Conservation easements allow landowners to ensure their choices to protect their land are maintained after their death or sale of the property.
Jay Pruett, director of conservation for the Oklahoma chapter of the Nature Conservancy, spoke to a small group of Spring Creek Coalition members and landowners last weekend at the Peggs Community Center about the benefits of conservation easements.
Jennifer Owen was one of the attendees who came with a negative perception of a conservation easements. She left intending to seek further details on securing one for the creek area of her property.
"I'm considering an easement now because of the activities the Conservancy promotes, supports and executes are exactly what we want to be doing," said Owen. "I think some of my neighbors will be interested, too."
Pruett explained that the Conservancy is a nonprofit with the primary mission of conserving lands and waters on which all life depends. The organization was founded in 1957, with the Oklahoma chapter established in 1986. The Nature Conservancy is in all 50 states and in 70 countries. In the U.S., there are three million acres under conservation, according to Pruett.
"There are eight ecosystems around Oklahoma and eight habitat types, from swamp land to desert plateaus," said Pruett. "We evaluate species and look for best opportunities for conservation."
Spring Creek is in good shape, he said, but the Conservancy is going to help maintain it and look for ways to make improvements.
"We buy property to protect, manage and conserve," he said, adding that there are 13 preserves in Oklahoma.
The organization encourages people to be signature landowners and show others what can be done with conservation.
"Nickel Preserve is preserving native habitats, conserving water quality and quantity and flow," said Pruett. "We have a conservation easement with the city of Sand Springs for the Keystone Ancient Forest Preserve. The White Oak Easement in on private property. It's never been plowed, but it has been baled and the last native fringed orchid was found there 40 years ago."
Every place was a natural habitat 200 years ago, he said, but roads were the first signs of change.
Part of his job is working with urban and industrial development, including wind energy. He said prairie chickens won't nest where tall structures, such as wind turbines, are located, because they're smart, and they've learned hawks will perch on them and attack them on the nest or their chicks. And wind turbines can't be erected near bat caves.
"We can't tell businesses where they can go or install their high lines or turbines, but we can make them aware of protected or conserved areas so they can make informed decisions, hopefully go around a certain area," Pruett said.
In Oklahoma, 95 percent of the land is privately owned, he said.
A conservation easement is a conveyance of selected property rights to a conservation entity.
"First, a landowner selects an entity, government or nonprofit conservation agency, then explains his or her wishes," said Pruett. "We encourage them to talk to a tax adviser and decide if it's better for them to sell or donate the easement."
Next, a conservation entity evaluates the property and its condition, finding options for that particular property.
A voluntary action by a landowner, the easement agreement is drawn up to the satisfaction of both entities, which includes tax benefits or revenues for the landowner.
"The restrictions will remain attached to the property from then on, in perpetuity, and be monitored at least annually for compliance," he said.
Restrictions can include subdivisions of the land, what it can be used for, or anything that would harm protected wildlife, species or land.
"We are focused on conservation of species and habitats," Pruett said.
Sometimes, problems arise with getting new owners of land to understand the restrictions, but usually they come to appreciate the arrangement, Pruett said.
Value of easements is determined by the property after evaluation, which includes size, location, values - stream banks are usually a higher value. Property next to a protected area might be valued more, according to Pruett.
Positives for a conservation easement include the land's being protected per the landowners wishes, and there is some certainty about the use of the land. It's especially a plus when an easement connects with other protected lands.
The easement does not take property off tax rolls, nor does it prevent imminent domain action such as transmission lines, but it can serve as a deterrent.
"We do not give the property to the government," Pruett said by way of clarification. "Oil and gas development can limit the ability to do easements. Landowners may not want to limit the ability of future generations to use land any way they want to, to make money, but allowances can be made for a future home site, so long as it doesn't override the uses of conservation of property."
Owen asked about the relationship of the Conservancy with government entities.
"We partner and have relationships; we're involved in some studies and the science behind some developments," said Pruett. "We do talk with and work with many groups on plans, like this Monarch butterfly habitat. Our relationships with them do help."
Jeremy and Amanda Tubbs attended representing the Nickel Preserve, where Jeremy has served as director since 2002. Amanda is operations program coordinator for the Nature Conservancy in the Tulsa office. The Preserve, which was established by the Nature Conservancy in 2000, is a good demonstration site to show what the entity does.
"When we see an invasive species, it becomes a high priority for us so it won't take off," said Tubbs.
Wes Combs, who discovered several new places to hike during the presentation, asked why Johnson grass was introduced in Oklahoma.
"It was brought in for cattle grazing," Pruett said.
Efforts are made to return land to its original habitat. Surveys from 100 years ago tell what the land was like and what trees were there, and through studying tree rings, even when fires occurred.
"We look at survey maps and remove species that would not have been there, with mechanical selectivity [using a bull dozer] to timbers, we look at savannahs and we do some control with fire," said Tubbs.
Nickel Preserve has one of the largest post oak forests, according to Tubbs.
"There's no hunting on the preserve, but the elk population is growing and they migrate to other properties and can be hunted there," he said.
Combs also asked about the hog population he's seen on his property along Spring Creek.
"Hogs are eating machines, destructive," said Tubbs. "We trap and remove them. They're smart; if you shoot them, they become more nocturnal. You have to trap about 75 percent of them to keep them in check."