Conservation easements are one of the best tools to keep working lands in working hands. Learn about how partners, like land trusts, work with the NRCS to craft successful conservation easements in this Ask an Expert with Brian Martin.
Strategically placed conservation easements are one of the best tools available for protecting working lands. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has long provided funding support, technical assistance, and conservation planning to help facilitate conservation easements.
Conservation easements help address one of the most significant threats facing America’s grass and shrub lands – land-use conversion to either crops or development. A 2020 paper from the journal Nature Communications showed that from 2006-2018, croplands in the U.S. expanded at a gross rate of more than one million acres per year. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 1.6 million acres of Great Plains’ grasslands were converted to crops in 2021 alone, including 117,000 acres in Montana.
Most of the best land for growing crops has already been converted from grasslands to crops. The Nature Communications paper showed that 69.5 percent of new cropland areas produced yields below the national average.
While these lands are not ideal for crops, they provide critical habitat for wildlife and for producers who graze livestock. For example, a typical grassland contains more than 60 times as many milkweed pods as a cropped field, the sole food source for Monarch butterfly larvae.
Reclaiming habitat lost to cropland conversion or development is costly, difficult, and rarely effective. Conversely, maintaining these rangelands as working lands provides forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife, and keeps carbon locked underground.
The reality is that it can be difficult to offset increasing land prices or development pressure.
Fortunately, conservation easements provide a flexible option for producers who want to keep their land “green-side up.”
The USDA-NRCS supports conservation easements across the West in several ways. The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits. Under the Agricultural Land Easements component, NRCS helps tribes, state and local governments, and non-governmental organizations protect working agricultural lands and limit non-agricultural uses of the land. Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component, NRCS helps to restore, protect, and enhance enrolled wetlands.
The Inflation Reduction Act added an additional $1.4 billion in funding for ACEP over five years and revised ACEP authority, providing specific funding for easements that will most reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester greenhouse gas emissions. For more information, see the NRCS fact sheet, “ACEP and the Inflation Reduction Act.”
While NRCS assistance and financial support are key components of conserving agricultural land, successful conservation easements depend on national and local partners like land trusts and other non-governmental organizations.
To better understand how NRCS and partners work together with landowners to put conservation easements in place, we sat down with Brian Martin, the grassland conservation director with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Montana. Over his three decades with TNC, Brian’s efforts have helped make Montana a leader in conservation easements. According to NRCS data, Montana has led the nation in acres conserved under the Agricultural Land Easement program from 2006-2023 with more than 250,000 acres. Few people have as much passion for the conservation legacy easements produce as Brian. Fewer still have Brian’s expertise in how conservation easements work, how land trusts work with the NRCS and other federal agencies to create easements, and why and how easements benefit working families.
Well, to start, easements allow landowners to receive income from the land without selling it. Family ranches typically have slim margins but valuable land, so that income is often used to ease the transition between generations by providing a stream of income to the parents or providing the capital to grow the ranch. Certainly, one of the most compelling benefits is that often times families have put generations into stewarding their land, and an easement ensures that the land will remain as a working grassland. This is hugely important in a state like Montana where many ranches are multi-generational.
Montanans love their state, and they are passionate about protecting their outdoor and agricultural heritage. Easements just seem to be a good fit for the people and the land. Neighbors see that success and the continuation of ranches and farms and healthy forests where there are easements. Conversely, Montana faces a lot of pressure for land-use change, and that passion for place is what drives so many landowners to want to protect their land for future generations.
From a scientific lens, we know that large areas dominated by grassland support the greatest number of plant and animal species and are also more resilient to a changing climate. For that reason, we prioritize those areas and then further focus on grasslands that occur on soils that are suitable for cropland conversion. We also try to work as much as we can with family ranches since they generally are invested in all aspects of their communities, which is vital for successful long-term stewardship.
We begin by sitting down and discussing a landowner’s interest and what they would like to achieve. If the owner’s interests and the property align with our priorities, we begin the process of identifying funding and how we can pull together the resources. NRCS is a key partner in this effort, as the agency often provides 75% of the easement purchase price. From there we have lots of conversations, working through the easement details. By the time we close an easement, the owners and TNC have truly built a partnership, which is one of the more gratifying aspects of this work.
We are fortunate to have the nonprofit Montana Association of Land Trusts, which works to connect land trusts, share information, and acts as an advocate that provides information about conservation easements to those outside the land trust community. Land trusts in Montana range from regional ones, mostly in the western portion of the state, to statewide, to national organizations. Each has its priorities but each one works to maintain the land and water and uses that have allowed people and nature to thrive.
NRCS administers the Agricultural Land Easement Program, but it doesn’t hold easements. It needs land trusts to hold the easements. It also relies on its partners to not only raise the funds to match NRCS’ financial contribution but also pay for short-term and long-term costs associated with easements as well as have the expertise to complete and ultimately steward easements. Also, NRCS staff are busy and easements are time-consuming, so groups can work to reduce this burden allowing us all to conserve more acreage and benefit more families.
We have a great relationship with NRCS. We advance projects that align with the agency’s priorities, protecting at-risk lands and waters while allowing for continued agricultural production. We also serve as the easement steward once it’s been acquired by maintaining the relationship with current and future owners, as well as conducting the annual monitoring to ensure that the easement terms are met.
I always tell landowners what they have been doing is the reason we are interested in seeing it remain the way it is. Importantly, in Montana at least, the easement states in the opening paragraph that it is being acquired “to protect grazing uses and related conservation values.” Landowners continue to graze the property and continue to use the same ranch infrastructure on most ranches, including fencing, water development, and corrals. The easement does not dictate how many or type of livestock, nor does it require specific grazing management. We count on landowners to be good stewards, and we also work with NRCS and others to be a resource should a landowner want to change their management, for example, by implementing new grazing systems.
In Montana, many landowners who ranch are connected across the state, and I would guess it’s the same in other states. So, I would first suggest they reach out to their peers where easements have been used. They should also feel free to directly connect with land trusts. In Montana – the Montana Association of Land Trusts is a great resource, or their local NRCS office, which can put them in touch with a land trust that works in their area. We understand that often times landowners and groups have lots of questions and land trusts are glad to answer those. We can also work to connect those interested in an easement with landowners that already have an easement on their land, so that they are talking to someone with a ranch owner perspective.
More generally, I would encourage groups to meet with landowners and listen to their concerns and hopes and learn what they want to do with their land. Relationship building is one of the most important aspects of this work, and it takes time. I often like to say, “conservation happens at the speed of trust,” and it’s especially true when it comes to easements. Networking, learning from successful models, and learning the ins and outs of conservation easements are all critical as well. There are a lot of groups who have had success with easements, and learning what has worked for them can save a lot of time and produce better easements for the families looking to conserve their land and heritage.
I’d say the number one accomplishment has been building a community of trust and practice around TNC’s Matador Ranch. I was involved in the purchase of the property 24 years ago and have had the good fortune to work with a lot of great staff over the years to build a grassbank program that achieves conservation outcomes and connects with dozens of ranch families to help strengthen their ranch operations. Trust and relationships built through that effort have in small to large ways contributed to adoption of conservation easements in northcentral Montana, strengthened connections within the ranching community in southern Phillips County and beyond, and built connections between the ranching and conservation community.
MORE CONSERVATION EASEMENT READING AND RESOURCES
Learn more about conservation easements from Lisa McCauley, a National Program Manager with the Easement Programs Division at the NRCS and formerly, NRCS Montana’s conservation easement specialist.
Learn about a successful, long-term conservation easement effort in Idaho’s Pioneers to Craters landscape that has conserved ~90,000 acres of working land in this wildlife-rich landscape.
Watch “On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of Montana Private Land Conservation” produced by the Montana Association of Land Trusts.