Civic

Commissioner wants more Money for Conservation

The county’s Brown Conservation Easement.

Asheville

Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells would like to increase the amount of taxpayer dollars subsidizing conservation easements to $750,000 annually.

At the last meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners, Commissioner Terri Wells proposed that the county set aside $750,000 per year for creating conservation easements. Last year, the county spent a third as much, mostly for transaction costs, placing wild and agricultural lands into trust to prevent their development in perpetuity. The new level of funding would allow the county to support about 18 conservation easements, totaling about 6,000 acres of farmland a year. 

To create a conservation easement, a person signs a contract, either with a land trust or government agency, in which they promise not to subdivide or develop acreage that they own. Wells reported that, to date, Buncombe County has conserved 77,182 acres, or 13% of its land. She estimated that translated to Buncombe County property owners, so far, “donating more than $33 million worth of value of their land to this.” In addition, there was a waiting list of about 30 people waiting to conserve farmland, with more who would step up should resources become available.

Often owners ask nothing in return for setting aside lands, but other times, they receive compensation of up to 50% of the land value. Wells, a Leicester resident, said a lot of growers opt for partial compensation because that gives them funds to reinvest in their farm, thus making local agribusiness offerings more plentiful, diverse, and higher-quality. One farmer was spotlighted for promoting agritourism by turning his easement into a wedding and event venue. Compensation is often paid from land trusts or state or federal grants. The transaction costs the county pays for closing on the property typically amount to about 10% of the payout.

Additional funds could go toward the maintenance and expansion of the Farm Heritage Trail and Visit NC Farms app. They would also support staff. Wells said it typically takes about two years to put land in a conservation easement. After that, either a trust or the county would have to monitor the land to make sure it is compliant with the terms of the agreement. Conservation agents also help install best practices, like swales and riparian buffers, and they support landowners with other land management needs. Wells suggested one way to accomplish more with less would be to create a single office for handling the easements.

Conservation easements are of current interest because Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) have introduced bills in their respective houses to “work toward” what is called the 30-by-30 plan. That’s short for a goal of protecting 30% of the nation’s lands and waterways with contracts for conservation in perpetuity by 2030. The likelihood of the plan being adopted, whether by Congress or an executive order, increased when President Joe Biden nominated Haaland for the position of secretary of the interior. 

Haaland explained, “Global wildlife populations are dramatically declining, with up to one million species currently on the path to extinction, and the lands, waters, and wetlands they depend on are disappearing. Climate change is reducing the ability of ecosystems to provide clean water, limiting the ability of nature to buffer communities against disasters that disproportionately impact communities of color and indigenous populations, altering the habitats and migratory patterns of marine and terrestrial wildlife, and shifting the timing of important biological events.” 

Haaland reported an unspecified “growing number” of scientists recommend 30% as a minimum for conservation. Currently, the United States only protects 12% of its land and 26% of its oceans. Other nations lag considerably behind. 

Advocates of the bill cite a report from the Center for Western Priorities that says about 60% of lands in the continental United States are largely pristine. However, randomly consigning half of those lands into easements would not suffice to address extinction and climate change. So, they insist lands counting toward the total should make nature more accessible to historically underrepresented populations, sequester carbon, prevent extinction, support ecosystems, and increase economic opportunities for persons who make their living off the land or waterways.

While the easements plainly represent a signing away of property rights, Haaland said they protect them. A flyer available from Buncombe County explains, “One way to understand this restriction is to see what each landowner’s property rights is a bundle of sticks. Each stick represents a right: commercial development, subdivision of property, hunting, mineral extraction, water usage, logging and construction of roadways and houses. Conservation easements protect the right to any addition development – and if additional development is desired, then it can be taken out of the easement. [Errors in original.]”

Wells admitted toward the close of her presentation that her ambitious plan would only bump Buncombe’s inventory of conserved lands up about 1% per year. The investment would, however, combine with a perhaps larger effort to create additional national wildlife refuges, parks, and monuments; and state forests and parklands.

The 30-by-30 concept has been floating around in various state legislatures for years, so it is not totally reactionary to former president Donald Trump’s opening of national parks to the energy industry. To illustrate how noisome this policy was to environmentalism, the National Parks Conservation Association created a 145-page timeline of adverse actions perpetrated under its aegis. Keeping things bipartisan, Trump caught heat from the left for creating conservation easements on four of his properties, which he reported in his taxes as charitable contributions totaling $119.3 million. The amount, however, has been described as small compared to the write offs other tycoons make for declaring conservation easements.

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