Permanent conservation easements are an important tool for conserving wetlands and other important wildlife habitats on private property across the country. However, this effective tool has recently come under fire.
The Landowner Easement Rights Act (LERA) is the latest attack on permanent easements, and it comes from the heart of North America’s duck factory—the Prairie Pothole Region. This area serves as the breeding ground for around 60% of migratory bird species in the U.S.
Waterfowl hunters have funded thousands of acres of permanent easements across this part of America through the purchase of federal duck stamps. If passed, this bill would prohibit the Department of Interior from entering into easements lasting more than 50 years, which would put such investment at risk and hamper lasting conservation work in partnership with private landowners. It would also require the DOI to renegotiate lots of existing easements that are 50 or more years old.
Conservation easements are voluntary, market-based agreements between a private landowner and a government agency or non-profit conservation organization. Willing landowners sell a portion of their property rights, such as the right to drain, fill, levee, or burn wetlands, in exchange for a fair market value for that right. When it comes to easements purchased with duck stamp dollars, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes those purchases. Permanent easements allow conservationists to protect habitat in perpetuity and ensure that such investments last for generations. They also help define which future land uses are still within bounds, like certain farming or ranching operations.
Landowners can’t be forced into easement agreements. They must be willing to enter such contracts with purchasers, and they must be paid a fair market value in return. Likewise, easements transfer with sale and are factored into the price.
According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, duck stamp dollars have been used to purchase permanent easements on more than 2.3 million acres of private property nationwide. These programs have been overwhelmingly successful.
“We are blessed in America to have some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the world. We have always not only respected the role private landowners play in wildlife conservation, but we also encourage it. It’s uniquely American,” said Dan Wrinn, national director of government affairs for Ducks Unlimited. “Using voluntary, non-regulatory incentives like conservation easements, farmers and ranchers can receive financial compensation to provide critical wildlife habitat that benefits the public, while the private landowner retains ownership of their land. Opportunities like this should be expanded, not reduced.”
Good for Corn, Bad for Conservation Proposals like LERA become particularly popular whenever crop prices increase. The potential for marginally higher returns could encourage farmers to buy out easements, till wetlands, and plant more crops. This cycle is prevalent in the Northern prairies where permanent conservation easements have been used as a conservation tool since the 1960s.
This particular bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives a few weeks ago by Reps. Fischbach (R-MN) and Armstrong (R-ND). Sens. Cramer (R-ND), Hoeven (R-ND), and Rounds (R-SD) introduced a companion bill in the Senate just days ago.
“This legislation would stop permanent landgrabs while providing a mechanism for landowners to resolve easement disputes, giving producers agency in protecting their property from federal bureaucrats,” Rep. Fischbach said in a press release.
The North Dakota Corn Growers Association (NDCGA) also supports the legislation.
“The NDCGA applauds Reps. Armstrong and Fischbach for recognizing that the wetlands easement process has been wrought with problems from day one. This legislation will strengthen farmers' ability to control the future of the land they live on and protect for future generations. It would be a tremendous tool to advance our growers’ private property rights,” they said in a release.
But many conservationists feel that this bill would actually undermine private property rights by limiting the choices individual landowners can make with respect to what they do with their land.
“One of the real concerns I have about this legislation is it totally and completely ignores the investment sportsmen and women have made in conservation,” said John Devney, chief policy officer at Delta Waterfowl. “These easements were purchased by my grandfather, my father, and generations of waterfowl hunters who purchased duck stamps and who were the buyers of the easements. What other transaction ignores the purchaser’s intent?”
What This Means for Waterfowl Proposals like this devalue the purchasing power of duck stamp dollars and have the potential to do real harm to the small wetlands that waterfowl depend on.
“A bill like this would fundamentally change the landscape of the Prairie Pothole Region for the worse,” MeatEater’s Sean Weaver said. “If this passes, we can expect the Dakotas to look like my home state of Iowa, where over 90% of wetlands are gone. Back home, folks are dealing with water quality and quantity issues, topsoil loss, and record droughts that wetlands could have tempered had they been left here. We’ll be looking at ditch-to-ditch farming and further destruction of wetlands, when what we should really be doing is learning how to restore and protect more wetlands.”
Conservation easements in the Prairie Pothole Region support waterfowl populations throughout the Central and Mississippi flyways.
“The Prairie Pothole Region is super important to most of the dabbling ducks that we hunt in the Mississippi Flyway,” Jonathan Wilkins of Black Duck Revival said. “Down here in Arkansas, greenheads are king and in the interest in keeping Arkansas the waterfowl hub that it is, we need to keep as much productive nesting ground on the landscape in the Prairie Pothole Region as we can.”
Of course, it isn’t just about waterfowl and hunting. This issue is closely connected to rural outdoor economies.
“The two main industries here in the Arkansas delta are agriculture and waterfowl hunting,” Wilkins said. “Many of the small towns around where I live are sustained by influxes of waterfowl and cash that come during duck and goose season.”
What’s Being Done When asked about issues with conservation easements in her confirmation hearing by Sen. Cramer (R-ND), now-USFWS Director Martha Williams replied, “You have given me a challenge that I am looking forward to diving into and finding a more positive way forward.”
Since that hearing, the USFWS has continued the work of the previous administration to address some of the issues regarding these easements. Agency staff is doing an intensive review to map all pre-1976 easements where the USFWS interest was unclear. They are also reaching out to landowners where violations may have occurred and offering improved technical guidance and other easement maintenance.
“These reviews are supported by the key conservation folks because we believe it is about being good neighbors to farmers, ranchers, and private landowners,” Devney said.
For better or for worse, conservation issues are intimately intertwined with politics, international markets, and the rights of private property owners. This bill is just one example of how all three of these factors can negatively impact wildlife if hunters and conservationists allow it.
“This is as bad of a bill as any waterfowler could find,” Sean said. “Call your members of Congress and let them know that this bill is bad for ducks and duck hunters.”
If you’d like to do just that, call the U.S. House switchboard at (202) 224-3121, have that office connect you to your Representative’s staff, and let them know how you feel about HR. 7021. If your Representative is a part of the House Natural Resources Committee where this bill has been referred, then your phone call means even more.