Definition: “A conservation easement typically consists of permanently enforceable rights held by a land trust or government agency by which the landowner promises to use property only in ways permitted by the easement. The landowner retains ownership and may convey it like any other property, subject to the easement’s restrictions. Conservation easements have been made possible by enabling legislation in virtually every state” (from Reinventing Conservation Easements: A Critical Examination and Ideas for Reform by Jeff Pidot, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2005).
Society has many expectations for large tracts of forest under conservation easement. The list often includes some form of public recreation on private ownership, sustainably harvested timber and pulp, biological diversity including diverse watchable and huntable wildlife, recreational leases, drivable roads, protected streams, ponds and wetlands, shared taxes, timely enforcement of the rules.
If that list is not long enough, some believe that these protected private lands can be managed to help slow or mitigate a changing climate that is likely to continue to warm for centuries, even if Homo sapiens cut emissions dramatically in order to maintain current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, which we are not.
During a winter 2009 workshop about Adirondack conservation easements, it was reported that there were 737,000 acres under some form of state conservation easement in all of New York State, with 98% occurring in the Adirondack region. An additional 100,000 acres were being negotiated. According to Regional Forester Tom Martin, in DEC Region 5 (two-thirds of the Adirondack Park) there were 365,000 acres under conservation easement with 113 different landowners in 2009. 340,000 of those acres were certified by third-party certification systems such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
During the workshop, Jerry Jenkins of the Wildlife Conservation Society offered his opinion that easements in the Northern Forest have achieved a basic goal to conserve biodiversity. Jenkins’ report Conservation Easements and Biodiversity in the Northern Forest Region (2008 by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Open Space Institute) provides important background and recommendations. As Jenkins stated at the workshop, conservation easements negotiated in the future should also address the issue of carbon emissions, which have global consequences.
If conservation easements are to address climate issues, landowners must be provided with the information and spectrum of management options. Forestry management plans which utilize low grade trees as biomass feedstock are on the “front lines.” To satisfy the Chicago Climate Exchange, forests need to be FSC certified.
Certification provides the standards and incentives to capture this low carbon energy source and the practice of low carbon forestry. Would easement lands qualify for carbon offset markets? Jenkins noted that the dollar value to landowners may not come solely or even primarily from carbon offsets, but from the avoidance cost of replacing fossil fuels as primary heat source in the northeast. As Jerry Jenkins put it, “how much money can we save the local school board by putting in a wood chip boiler in place of the old oil burner? How can those savings be translated into financial benefits for the landowner?”
In September, 2010, the Adirondack Park Agency sponsored a field visit with the Adirondack Park’s largest private landowner and manager of lands under conservation easement, Lyme Timber. Lyme’s land manager Sean Ross led the APA to lands they have harvested north of Tupper Lake. Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley and I went along. These foresters manage blocks as large as 15,000 acres. Lyme owns 250,000-acres in the Adirondack Park.
In general, Lyme views the conservation easement positively, as well as the rigorous certification requirements of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Ross made the case that the Adirondack Park’s protected status, including laws and publicly-owned Forest Preserve, were strong incentives to engage in easements and certification. Lyme’s field operations must be audited each year by the FSC or one of its third party certifiers. As Sean told us, FSC certification is an expected cost of doing business these days.
Why is Lyme in this forest land business? Trees are adding diameter and value yearly. This steady return on investment jumps when a large cherry or maple grows into a larger diameter class. Lyme’s markets are wherever they can find them – the Ticonderoga mill, nearby biomass plants, Canada and the world.
If he had the power to do so, what would he change about the conservation easement? Sean Ross said that he might take small parts of a given parcel out of the easement, and put other areas in it. Other than this, he saw no need for change. In answer to other questions, Sean Ross noted that fragmentation of land ownerships across the Northern Forest is making it challenging to manage lands for forestry. Asked if Ross could estimate Lyme’s minimum viable tract size, Ross stated it was around 10,000 acres.
Were there any collaborative efforts to conduct ecosystem-based, wild land planning for wildlife and ecosystem integrity on these lands, such as wildlife corridors? In response, Ross noted that Lyme was able to get a grant through DEC to hire a wildlife biologist that is exploring these issues for their Adirondack lands. He noted collaboration with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Audubon New York.
Lyme also participated in the 2009 workshop. During that meeting, its representative noted the time pressures to complete contracts, and to assess what’s important to conserve in a conservation easement. On the other hand, biologists at the workshop felt that on large forested tracts several field seasons were required to survey and document rare or unique ecological communities.
The 2009 workshop concluded by identifying the following needs and tasks:
• Studies to indicate whether easements in the Adirondacks are truly meeting stated ecological, economic and social objectives.
• Studies of how easement lands respond to climate change.
• Methods for compensating landowners for achieving easement objectives
• Funding for baseline documentation and monitoring programs for both land and aquatic resources.
• Completing a conservation easement registry program, already required by law.
Photo: Sean Ross of Lyme Timber addresses questions during APA-sponsored field visit in September. Photo by Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild.