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John Moeur, Managing Editor svhnews@c2i2.com


It's our environment
Conservation easements benefit people and help keep our environment secure
by Lee Basnar

"We can tailor easements to allow some future growth," Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Bill Childress says, referring to the flexibility available in conservation easements.  But, Childress, San Pedro Project Manager for the Bureau, isn't emphasizing growth;  he merely points out that
BLM will consider minor growth proposals when negotiating a conservation easement with a landowner.

Conservation easements offer excellent opportunities for landowners to maintain their lifestyle, preserve open space and profit from their land holdings.  Of course, landowners must give something in return.  That's the essence of a conservation easement.

In return for receiving a percentage of the appraised value of their land, the landowner relinquishes development rights to that land.  BLM protects the easement from the threat of future development.

The intest of the conservation easement is to "prevent future high-density development on the land and to preserve biological corridors that link the sky islands with the river," Childress says.  "Easements also protect natural drainages."  Childress wants to "place high-water-use acreage into a non-use status," referring to irrigated agricultural property.  "That will help protect the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA)," he says.  Managing groundwater use is an important component of easements.

Conservation easements are attractive.  In return for not developing their land, landowners receive cash for those development rights and still retain ownership of their property.  They can continue to live on and use their acreage, or even sell it.  The conservation easement runs with the land and is irrevocable.

Maintaining their land and lifestyle appeals to the people we're working with," says Childress.  He tells them to take a long-term view and discuss any concerns up front.  Whatever decision they make is permanent.

The Bureau hopes eventually to close "The Gap," a 10,000 acre stretch near Palominas that is the only significant break in the SPRNCA between the Mexican border and the riparian area's northern boundary near St. David. Childress expects it may take years to acquire easements on that land.

Landowners along the SPRUNCA corridor can contact Howard Kahlow, BLM Realty Specialist, (458-3559) to get detailed information about conservation easements.  Kahlow says finalizing a conservation easement "may take several months."

To process an easement, the Bureau must obtain a hazardous material clearance after conducting a document search and ground survey.  Additional requirements include an environmental assessment and a preliminary title report.  BLM conducts a closing survey to ensure nothing has changed since the agreement was drafted.  When all is in order the landowners are paid for preserving the future of the land they continue to own.  That's a win-win
situation for them and the environment.

The Bureau takes photos, inventories types of plants, notes road locations and records the placement of buildings to establish a baseline for future reference.  By referring to the baseline file, BLM conducts periodic checks determine if the landowner is abiding by the agreement.  For example, a check would disclose if cattle have been grazed on the easement in violation
of a contract that excludes grazing rights.  However, easements may include grazing rights.

"We don't want to infringe on any landowner's privacy," Childress emphasizes.  "We monitor occasionally, or perhaps do a fly-over, which is the least intrusive method of checking."

Conservation easements keep land in the tax base, retain the character of our country and have positive potential for the future of the river and the entire basin.  But some people prefer to sell their land and move.

Howard Kahlow says outright purchase of land impossible, but BLM prefers to buy a conservation easement unless the parcel is small.  When purchase is preferred, the Bureau sometimes turns to conservation agencies for assistance.  Some conservation groups can simplify a purchase and "they are adept at packaging small parcels into one large block of land."  Once purchased, BLM removes the land from future development.  Kahlow stretches
his annual real estate budget of three-to-four million dollars by negotiating easements, when possible, rather than buying the land.

Bill Childress sums up by saying, "Conservation easements maintain the tax base and the existing footprint on the land.

In my view that footprint is more welcome than another cookie-cutter subdivision or a mall parking lot.  Conservation easement benefit man and nature.  The easements preserve views, reduce water consumption, protect wildlife habitat and maintain the character of the land.  That's a concept we can live with.

Chairman of the Sierra Vista Environmental Affairs Commission, Lee Basnar writes this column as a freelance writer and private citizen, not as a city commissioner.