July 25, 2008

Conservation Easements Program No Longer Just Preserves Grasslands but, Keeps Plots in Production

By Leslie Reed, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 25--ALDA, Neb. -- An unusual agreement on a 150-acre field near the Platte River has helped a young farmer purchase his first tract of land and the Nature Conservancy to protect habitat for whooping cranes and other migratory birds.

The conservation easement on Troy Rainforth's soybean field is unusual because it allows wildlife habitat to also be farmed, said John T. Heaston of Cozad, Neb., director of the Nature Conservancy's Platte River Program.

Heaston said such agreements could become a valuable tool in efforts to restore as much as 29,000 acres of wildlife habitat under the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, which involves Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and the federal government.

The Rainforth field is located about 15 miles southwest of Grand Island. Rainforth had rented it since 2000 from a Grand Island businessman who later sold it to the Nature Conservancy.

Buying the land from the conservancy, Rainforth saved perhaps $600 per acre, reflecting the reduced value of property that now cannot be developed for homes or business.

"I'm in it for the farming. I'm not a developer. I'm not an investor," Rainforth said. "I'm not saying this is a hot spot for development, but it might be in the future. But we both got what we wanted. I got a piece of ground I had been farming."

In essence, the agreement allows land to be sold with permanent restrictions on the rights to develop it.

Conservation easements commonly have been used to preserve prairie grasslands and forests. Less commonly, they have been used to protect cropland from encroaching suburban development.

This agreement allows Rainforth to use the land for a wide array of agricultural purposes, including hunting, irrigation and grazing.

To protect the birds' habitat, Rainforth can't build a house on the land or allow someone to put up a cell phone tower. He can't sell the topsoil, dig a sand pit or mine the land.

The Nature Conservancy's Heaston said he envisions that similar easements could be used to restore Platte River habitat without taking farmland out of production.

Jerry Kenny and Bruce Sackett of the state-federal Platte River recovery program said 10,000 acres must be set aside for habitat by 2015. They hope to use a combination of land purchases, long-term leases and easements to reach that goal.

Though Rainforth's land is not part of the first phase of the Platte recovery effort, it may count toward the goal in later phases, Heaston said. The plan envisions 2,500-acre "complexes" of riverbeds, wetlands and buffering croplands flanking the river between Lexington and Chapman.

Heaston said farming is compatible with cranes and other migratory birds that like to roost in flat cropland and eat waste grain left in the field.

Rainforth said the birds don't interfere with farming because they migrate through the area before spring planting and after fall harvest.

Rob Robertson, government liaison for the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, said use of conservation easements is a growing trend that can benefit young farmers as well as the environment.

"Land availability and affordability is the biggest hurdle for young producers today in getting into agriculture," Robertson said.

However, he advises people to carefully read the fine print and consider the ramifications of an easement before signing. It could affect the long-term value of the land, he said.

Heaston said the new wrinkle with the Rainforth easement made it time-consuming to develop. It was difficult to get an appraisal of the land's value with and without the easement. An appraiser eventually estimated the land was worth $2,400 per acre without the easement and $1,800 with it.

But land values began to shoot up to near $3,000 per acre while the land was for sale.

The Nature Conservancy decided against re-appraising the land. Because the group had vowed to sell to a local owner if possible, it rejected bids from out-of-state investors that were $400 to $500 an acre higher than the approximately $2,400 per acre that Rainforth paid.

Rainforth, 32, lives in a subdivision near Doniphan with his wife and toddler daughter. He works with his father and two older brothers to farm about 4,000 acres in the Alda and Doniphan areas. Some of the land is rented and some is owned by family. Although each controls his own land, the four share labor.

Chad Nabity, regional planning director for Hall County and the City of Grand Island, said easements can be a concern to local government officials who fear that they could prevent growth in property tax values by restricting development.

However, local officials approved the Rainforth easement because it was consistent with development plans and they were pleased to see the land sold to a local resident.

"It's a piece of property that we'd like to see maintained in agricultural production," Nabity said. "We don't foresee any urbanized development there, and for the foreseeable future, we don't want any urbanized development there."

--Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, [email protected]


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