Land & Responsibility

The term "conservation land buyer" is routinely used to describe people who utilize their financial resources to acquire lands for the specific purpose of conservation. These folks are trying to "give back," or protect land for future generations. Some of them spend substantial amounts of money to do so. It's a noble gesture.

It is not, however, a gesture that needs to be limited to the affluent. In fact, anyone who purchases, inherits or already owns land, regardless of their financial means or the size of their acreage, has a responsibility to care for it in a way that conserves it for future generations.

But here ís some good news: Stewardship of our natural resources (and by that I mean conservation-oriented land management) enhances not only the natural resources, but the land value and the ownership experience as well. The better you treat the land, the better the land treats you!

And here's more good news: You don't have to be wealthy to play the game. In fact, the majority of privately held land is not the playground of the wealthy, but rather the back yards, hunting lands, fishing camps and retirement getaways of the ordinary.

Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results with a little land and a bit of know-how. Whether you want to reduce your carbon footprint, enhance wildlife habitat, maximize the forest resources, restore native grasslands, or simply have a nice place to retire, you can make a difference.

But here's the best news of all: Conservation programs can actually offset the costs of ownership. I interviewed a landowner in Illinois who used the Conservation Reserve Enhanced Program (CREP) to completely pay for his 400-plus acre farm. All he did was enroll his farm in the program. In return, the state paid him an amount equivalent to his down payment for a conservation easement, and the federal CREP pays him annually an amount exceeding his annual loan payment for converting his agricultural land back into forested land. Plus, they provided (for free) the 100,000 trees he planted. Not bad.

So, can every aspiring landowner get a free farm? No. These opportunities are part luck and part timing, but they do underscore the untapped potential in conservation programs. Through tax breaks, cost sharing and direct payments, people just like you have reduced their cost of ownership with streamside and wetland mitigation, CRP, conservation easements and other programs.

With the current trend toward green initiatives, including cap and trade, carbon credits and incentives in the new farm bill, who knows what could be coming. One thing is certain; people who understand and leverage these programs will be glad they did.

I'll admit that, in the past, I have been skeptical of these programs. I thought that conservation programs meant a total loss of control of the property, that utility was limited, and that land value was diminished. But in fact, most conservation programs and easements allow for a residence (or two), farming, timber management and harvesting, hunting and unlimited personal use.

Most of these programs develop a management plan for you that is specifically designed to create or maintain native habitat, with an emphasis on wildlife. In most cases, the value and utility of the property are unaffected.

So get connected. Learn about wetlands management, habitat improvement, conservation easements, streamside management, Conservation Reserve Programs, the Forest Service, NRCS, the Farm Bill, USDA, and state and local programs. Find out how these programs can benefit not only the land, but the landowner as well.

ABOUT THE AUTHORDon Webb is the author of "Maximizing The Land Ownership Experience" and president of Greenwood Land Company, which provides land acquisition and consulting services. Contact him at (706) 575-4178 or go online to www.greenwoodproject.com.

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