Popular in other states, the use of easements to protect farm and forest lands in production could give Oregon a strong tool to complement its land use system and ultimately keep those working lands from disappearing. A panel of experts offered a view at this week’s State Board of Agriculture meeting of what is and what could be in Oregon with regard to easements.
“We see the potential here in Oregon, but what is happening right now is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Laura Masterson, organic grower and vice-chair of the Board of Agriculture. “Easements are a tool being used all over the country and have been very effective in other states for decades.”
Conservation easements are a voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency which permanently limits the use of that land for conservation purposes. There is usually compensation for the landowner in exchange for conserving the land. The same concept applies in using easements for farm protection although, in this case, the public benefit is keeping land in farm use in perpetuity. Again, most holders of an easement are usually a land trust or government agency.
“Working land easements do not take land out of farm or forest production,” said Jim Johnson, land use specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “They do not put land in public ownership. They do not take the land off the tax rolls. They do not grant management of the land to the holder. It’s still the landowner’s job to manage the land subject to the requirements of the easement.”
Johnson, who spoke as part of the panel at the Board of Agriculture meeting, was quick to point out what easements do as well as don’t do.
“Easements protect a family’s legacy and they can make the land available for farm use for future generations, helping with land succession,” he said. “Easements are great complements to the existing land use planning program. And, of course, they can help protect restoration efforts. If you want to make sure those restoration efforts remain in place for a long time, an easement can help.”
There are also financial incentives for those entering into such an agreement. The money paid by the land trust or government agency as the holder of the easement can be used for whatever purpose the landowner wishes– whether it’s for capital expenditures for the farm or whether it’s for retirement.
The easement holder benefits by being able to implement their program or achieve their goal. If the aim is to protect farmland from development, easements are another tool to supplement existing land use laws in Oregon. A concern about urban growth could be addressed by using easements to steer growth away from those areas.
A limiting factor in the use of easements is funding. Land trusts are doing the best they can but government agencies don’t commonly have the budgets to provide the compensation.
The Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts (COLT) conservatively estimates 460 easements in Oregon currently protecting about 156,000 acres. Washington has 3,500 easements protecting 300,000 acres and California has 2,600 easements protecting more than 1.3 million acres. Even a small state like Maryland has made funding easements a high priority with 4,000 easements protecting 400,000 acres– 5 percent of the state’s land mass.
While some funding for easements come courtesy of the US Farm Bill– which is often matched by state investments– soil and water conservation districts are now looking to enter the picture in Oregon.
“We love our land in Oregon and it’s important to our culture, our economy, our way of life,” said Tom Salzer, general manager of the Clackamas SWCD, another member of the panel. “Conservation districts and land trusts working together have an opportunity to help shape the future of development and place an importance on working farm and forest lands that heretofore has not been done.”
Another member of the panel is one of the landowners who experiences the benefits of easements. Mary Wahl is a fourth generation ranch owner on the southern Oregon coast, primarily raising sheep. Along with the conservation benefits– which she has seen ranging from restored salmon runs to improved water quality– Wahl told the Board of Agriculture that easements help pass the ranch down to the next generation.
“My family wants to have this land be permanently in agriculture. This gets us permanent ag and allows us a way to deal with other important interests,” she told the board.
Panel member Don Stuart, formerly of the American Farmland Trust, indicated that preserving working agricultural lands requires foresight on behalf of the landowner.
“A working land easement is basically a conservation easement in which the conservation value to be protected is agriculture,” said Stuart. “In the simplest case, the easement says do not develop this land and do not subdivide this land. Don’t do anything here that will prejudice it’s usefulness for agriculture.”
Stuart pointed out that agricultural land often acquires a market value that is substantially higher than its value of production, typically when it’s located near development. The temptation to cash in and sell the land can be great, but giving in can take that farm land out of production permanently.
“If you don’t sell that land, maybe your kids will down the line,” he said. “Maybe there are generations of your family that have been working that land, and you want to keep it in ag forever. You don’t want that land to be developed. An easement is a tool that can make that happen.”
Kelley Beamer, director of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, rattled off several examples of easements effectively keeping the land in agricultural production– including Horning Farm in the Willamette Valley, C2 Cattle Ranch in Jackson County, and Wolfe Ranch in Wallowa County. All have used the tool of easements to protect significant acreage.
Nationwide, 22 million acres of land are in easements. Oregon is poised to add to that number.