Farming Magazine - March, 2012


Conservation Considerations

FSM easements preserve forest management practices
By Patrick White

When the Forest Society of Maine (FSM) was first created in 1984, the idea of conservation easements was still pretty new. Since that time, conservation easements, in New England at least, have become much more common. The FSM alone has helped conserve more than 1 million acres. Conservation easements have also become better understood and more refined over that time, explains Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the FSM. "We've certainly all learned a lot about how to write an easement and how to make them function better. Easements have certainly evolved into a better product over the past 25 years," he says.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) team members discuss forest management plans and their relationship to the terms of the conservation easement on the Nicatous Lake parcel in Down East Maine.
Photos courtesy of the Forest Society of Maine.

Hutchinson notes that the FSM shares the goal of most land trusts: "We're here to provide options for landowners. We're here to help landowners explore alternatives toward the goal of trying to keep their lands largely undeveloped." In some cases conservation easements are purchased; in others they are donated by the landowner. In all cases, the FSM takes on the responsibility of ensuring that the stipulations written into that easement continue to be met.

The impetus for the creation of the FSM was the desire of one family to conserve its very large - about 18,000-acre - parcel of forestland in western Maine. "It was land that had been in family ownership for more than 100 years," explains Hutchinson. "As the land was about to change hands after five generations, they wanted to ensure that the good forestry and all the other great benefits of that property were going to stay intact."

Since there was no organization in Maine at that time that could legally hold that type of easement, the neighboring Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests stepped forward to help create and nurture such an organization. It wasn't long, though, before the FSM was able to become its own organization, complete with the staffing, expertise and finances to stand on its own.

Due to the size and scope of that initial conservation project, it garnered media attention, which helped get the message out to the public about the value of forestland easements. "At the time, it was the largest and probably the most-comprehensive working forest conservation easement ever done in the country," says Hutchinson. In addition to the forests, the property boasted popular hiking and canoe trails, as well as campsites, great fishing and stunning views. "It was really one of the pioneering properties where people came together to figure out how, through a conservation easement, those multiple values could all be ensured into the future, while at the same time allowing future landowners to manage for forestry and an economic return," he explains.

Hutchinson says that the ecological and recreational values of that first property helped to set the tone for the type of conservation projects the FSM has become known for. While conserving large tracts of forestland continues to be a hallmark of the organization, it's worth noting that the FSM often works with smaller woodlot owners. "The second conservation project that this organization took on was about 200 acres," he notes. "It was a family-owned woodlot that had been beautifully managed, and they wanted to ensure that management would continue into the future."

Typically, it's that desire to preserve careful forest management practices that drives woodlot owners to contemplate a conservation easement. "They want to know that there will be an organization there to ensure that their approach to good forestry and land stewardship will continue into the future," Hutchinson says. "Whenever somebody comes to us and is interested in an easement, first and foremost we'll sit and listen to the landowners. We want to spend the time to find out what their goals are." Next comes a site visit, where FSM staff examine the attributes of the property. "One of the things we look for within the big working forest landscape are those pieces that really warrant a higher level of protection toward ecological reserve," Hutchinson adds.

When considering the purchase of a conservation easement, the Forest Society of Maine considers the past management practices as well as the ecological and recreational values of the parcel, including unique features and views.

The FSM cannot conserve every property, mainly due to the resources required. There often are costs for the landowners, but there are always costs for the organization. Hutchinson says the FSM does its best, especially with family-owned properties, to use on-staff expertise to provide as many services as possible during the conservation easement process. This is particularly true when landowners donate easements to the organization. However, when easements are purchased, there are costs for the landowner, he points out. "There are attorneys, surveyors, appraisers and so on. We work with the landowner to figure out how those costs get covered," Hutchinson explains.

While there may be costs to the landowner when a conservation easement is completed, for the FSM the costs of holding that property are only just beginning. "For any easement, whether it's donated or purchased, there's a critical need to ensure we have the money in perpetuity going forward to oversee and monitor that property," emphasizes Hutchinson. "We're taking on a forever obligation of time and cost. We've made promises to the landowner that we're going to ensure their vision for the property stays in place through the easement, and we need to be sure we have the resources to accomplish that."

The FSM conducts annual on-site monitoring of each conserved property, and sometimes enforcement actions are required. Stewardship staff also fly over properties to examine them by plane, and examine satellite imagery to monitor the property. "And every easement has very strong language and requirements for 'regular meetings' between the landowner and our organization, and the regular exchange of information and notifications of harvesting," says Hutchinson. Forest management plans also must be provided to FSM. He says that this proactive exchange of information helps to prevent conflicts and represents one of the ways that conservation easements have improved over the years in terms of the way they are written.

When selecting properties to conserve, in addition to the ecological and recreational values present, FSM also considers the proximity to other conservation lands, in an effort to build up critical masses of conserved land. "We also look for well-managed lands - those that really demonstrate exemplary forest management, where we want to help that continue into the future," says Hutchinson.

The FSM focuses its efforts on the "Big Woods" or the "North Woods" of inland Maine, where populations are lower but larger forestland tracts are more common. In some cases the organization searches out properties. For example, the FSM is currently underway with an effort to make contact with every major landowner in the state, "just to get a sense of where their thinking may be relative to the need for conservation assistance over the next five years," says Hutchinson. This will give the FSM time to plan. However, he adds that, "by and large we're kept busy by landowners coming to us."

This includes small (100 to 500 acres) and large landowners, as well as industrial landowners (land owned by corporations). Most conservation easements begin with a "template" that's been refined to broadly fit these different types of properties and ownership categories. "If you look at them, they all have great similarities - working to ensure that the forests stay as forests; that the ecological values stay intact; and if there are special recreation amenities provided that those continue into the future," says Hutchinson. From there, customizations are made to take into account the particulars of the property and the wishes of the landowners.

For example, conservation easements can be written differently according to the wishes of the landowner and the attributes of the specific property. The majority of easements ensure the future ability to manage and harvest forestland. In some cases, though, that is not desirable. For example, the FSM's most recent easement was on a 200-acre parcel east of Bangor. "The family has this beautiful piece of property along a beautiful stream and some significant wetlands that fit into a state-managed ecological reserve," Hutchinson states. "The family donated a conservation easement to us, and the easement is written to be a no-harvest ecological reserve area. But that's a decision that was driven by science. While we have a specialty on holding and overseeing easements on working forestland, we're also always looking for those pieces that fill certain niches in the landscape."

Hutchinson says that many of the conservation easement inquiries the FSM receives are simply landowners looking for information. "A lot of time we spend with people is just educational - answering questions about easements and providing information," he explains. "If someone contacts us, there's no pressure that we expect they will put an easement on their land." Sometimes a woodlot owner might make an initial inquiry and there will be periodic discussions, but it will be five years before they decide the timing is right.

In fact, Hutchinson counsels landowners to take their time to find out if an easement is right for them, and then to look at the different conservation organizations in the state to see which might be the best fit. "Don't be bashful about talking to three or four different groups. There are a lot of really good forestland land trust organizations here in the Northeast, and we're all a little different as far as our focus on size and focus and requirements for stewardship oversight," he advises. "Take your time and be thoughtful about the process so you can find the right fit."

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories.