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Conservation easements: Protecting wildlife habitat and helping landowners

Arkansas originally had an estimated 9.8 million acres of wetlands, primarily in what is known as the Delta. Today, fewer than 1 million acres of forested wetlands remain in the Arkansas Delta.

The region once teemed with waterfowl, deer, bear, turkey and many other species of wildlife associated with wetland habitat. Remnants of the habitats still exist and some of the species are still abundant.

Cypress trees with their red-tinged fall leaves, buttonbush, or buck-brush swamps, and towering oaks still impress and are often found in remote and inhospitable places, further enhancing their allure.

According to Brian Davis, regional biologist with Ducks Unlimited in Little Rock, Ark., “Most wetlands remain on private lands. Without good private land stewards, wildlife would be further pressed into ever shrinking habitats. Private landowners are critical to safeguarding many species of fish, wildlife and plants.

“Recognizing the importance of private lands, the Internal Revenue Service permits landowners to donate conservation easements to organizations like Ducks Unlimited. This can create a winning opportunity for landowners, wildlife and their habitats, the easement holder, Ducks Unlimited and society in general.”

A conservation easement is a legal agreement that allows a property owner to protect natural assets like wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests. The easement becomes part of the land deed and restricts the type and amount of development that occurs on the property. Landowners can manage the timber under a timber management plan developed by a forester and they can continue to pursue recreational activities like hunting, fishing, hiking and bird watching.

“Conservation easements protect valuable habitats, allow landowners to continue coveted outdoor heritages like hunting and fishing, and the grantee, such as Ducks Unlimited, can develop a valuable partnership with landowners. Properties considered for easements may include wetlands, bottomland hardwoods or other important natural features on hunting clubs, farms or ranches,” Davis said.

Asked if conservation easements be flexible, Davis replied, “Absolutely. Landowners can actually include their own restrictions (e.g., development rights) on their property while still retaining title to the property and important rights such as hunting, fishing, and other recreation.”

Why should a landowner donate a conservation easement? “Landowners can protect the wildlife habitat and natural values of their property and incur beneficial tax incentives.”

Landowners should discuss potential tax incentives with their tax advisor or attorney. Landowners should be prepared to obtain a title search for their land, a baseline documentation report (BDR; the biological inventory required by IRS rules), and an appraisal.

Also, if lands are acceptable to Ducks Unlimited for conservation easements, landowners are asked to contribute 2 percent of the value of the easement into an endowment fund. The fund provides Ducks Unlimited with the means to monitor conservation easement properties annually, a requirement from the IRS.

According to David Long, agricultural liaison for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, “Many landowners, including row crop farmers who enroll croplands into wetland practices under USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, can also reap the benefits of donating a conservation easement. Not only do they receive up to 15 years in CRP soil rental payments and other incentives, depending on the practice, they can qualify for Ducks Unlimited conservation easements and provide future protection for these lands.

“At the same time, landowners qualify for federal tax breaks. This can be a much-needed financial benefit for farmers needing to take flood or drought prone, hard to farm, marginally productive croplands out of production.

“I encourage any landowner who thinks he/she has qualifying lands to call Ducks Unlimited and check this tax saving opportunity out first hand.”

Long added, “In addition, there may be other programs potentially available to be piggybacked with the CRP and conservation easement to realize additional financial benefits. Several private, non-profit groups are offering carbon credit payments for landowners planting hardwood trees. One group is offering $300 per acre on certain CRP contracts that are planted to hardwood and cottonwood trees on croplands with specific soil types. When the carbon credits are sold, landowners may receive a percentage of this income as well.

“We have private lands biologist assigned in the Delta that know these programs and can help landowners restore habitat. Landowners can realize the greatest economic returns by being aware of all of the program options available to them to restore wetland habitat in the Delta.”

For more information about the Ducks Unlimited conservation easement program, contact Brian Davis (501) 955-9264 or Jimmy Emfinger, director of land protection in DU’s Southern Regional Office (601) 206-5431, or DU’s land attorney David Marrone (901) 758-3825. Long can be reached toll-free at (877) 972-5438.

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