May 21 • 04:17 AM

An eye toward conservation

Nature and land conservancies work with landowners to protect natural beauty

Conservancy advisor Donna Foland and Dryden area land owner Joan Graham stand on the site where Graham's 132 acre conservation easement begins. photo by Photo by Catherine Brakefield.

March 19, 2008
Editor's note: This is another feature story regarding land conservancy efforts in the area as highlighted in a story in the Feb. 27, 2008 Lifestyles section featuring Dryden area resident Joan Graham.

Misunderstanding and confusion has property owners hesitate to ask questions regarding deed easements into the Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and other land conservancy groups.

Such groups don't pressure landowners to enter into conservation easements, says Donna Foland, Executive Director of the Oakland Land Conservancy. But landowners' interest in the Conservancy's mission to preserve, protect and connect natural areas and open spaces to enhance the quality of life in and around the areas they serve has exceeded even their expectations.

"The word 'connect' was added to our mission a few years ago to reflect that we not only wanted to preserve these areas, we wanted to preserve them within the context of an interconnected functional natural system," Foland says. "It has become increasingly clear that our conservation efforts occur not only within a context of natural systems, but also within a human context. To that end we are asking ourselves: How can our work truly serve the communities where we conserve land?

"Are we listening to people's stories and celebrating the relationships to the land that already exist?," Foland continues. "And, how is our work adding value to those relationships? We want to understand those relationships and honor them."

Such was the case with Joan Graham, who grew to love the natural beauty of her Dryden area land and desired to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.

'Jonathan Woods,' a vast and beautiful track of woodland forest, was one of the first in the area to join The Nature Conservancy. Foland notes that it was donated to the Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy by Bess Graham, Joan Graham's best friend.

"A few years back The Nature Conservancy turned Jonathan Woods over to Seven Ponds Nature Center," Foland says. "I love walking there."

Recently, The Freemans, who live on Delano Road, donated a conservation easement to the Oakland Land Conservancy which adjoins Jonathan Woods. This, says Foland, is an important example of how connecting together accomplished a much larger area of conservation.

The Freemans still own the title to the property.

A landowner who donates a conservation easement will continue to pay taxes on the property they own, but they should see a reduction in the amount they pay because the conservation easement reduces the value of the property.

Foland adds that a conservation easement on a property does not automatically grant public access. The landowner may choose to allow public access. Generally, the landowner does not need to take extra liability insurance and the landowner can stipulate in the deed the terms of the public access.

"If the conservation does grant public access, that access will be described in detail and will probably specify quiet enjoyment of the property with no motor vehicles and only during certain hours (like dawn to dusk)," Foland says. "If the visitors are on the property during a time when there is no public access and are being disorderly the landowner most certainly can and should call the police for assistance."

In Joan Graham's conservation easement of 120 acres, the easement cannot specify who may use the trails, (for example, this group can but these others cannot), but how and when, Foland says.

"You limit the users by stipulating no motor vehicles, etc.," Foland says.

The conservation easement continues with subsequent owners.

"If Joan were to sell her property now with the easement on it, the new owner would acquire the 25 acres with house and barns unrestricted and the remainder of the property protected by the conservation easement. The conservation easement stays with the land."

These restrictions could cause future buyers to reconsider the purchase of Graham's land because though the 25 acres with house and barns are unrestricted, the remainder of her property is protected by the conservation easement.

"It will prevent purchase of the land by someone who wants uses that are not compatible with the conservation easement," Foland says. "But if you want to farm or have a large open space to roam in, it may be just the ticket. It is very important to understand the restrictions before buying a property with a conservation easement."

Before a deed is drawn up, the Conservancy drafts the conservation easement for the landowner to review with their attorney.

"The negotiation process is a very important time," Foland says. "The Conservancy and landowner, with both our legal advisors, review and revise the document until we have arrived at the right balance of restricted uses and reserved rights to ensure that the property will be conserved and the landowner will continue to enjoy the property."

Foland stresses that it's important for the landowner to consult with their own legal and financial advisors during the process to assist with their decision making.

For instance, the property owner must specify on the deed if they wish to lease land for agricultural purposes. They can sell the land to a developer, but the developer will not be able to develop it.

"This is the use (land development) we are most often preventing with the conservation easement," Foland says.

At least once a year the Conservancy visits the landowner and inspects the property to make sure the terms of the conservation easement are being upheld.

"This is our legal obligation as holder of the easement—but we do so much more for our conservation easement landowners," Foland says.

"The conservation easement to us, is much more than a legal document, it is the beginning of a partnership with the landowner and their land," she continues. "The landowner can call us any time with questions and we often help them find the resources they need to care for their land. We might bring volunteer crews to help landowners with control of invasive plants or help with other management issues."

The Conservancy does not hold conservation easements on mortgaged land, unless the bank is willing to subordinate the mortgage to the easement.

"But any landowner who wants to conserve their property and steward it wisely can come to us for assistance," Foland adds, "even if a conservation easement is not a possibility."

Foland says she understands why property owners hesitate to place their land under a conservation easement.

"It is a huge decision for a landowner to make," says Foland. "We are here to provide information and help landowners realize their conservation goals. If the landowner feels that conservation easement is not the right solution—or at least not right now—we will still be helpful and will never rush a decision."

The Conservancy is a non-profit organization, supported by memberships, grants, major gifts and fundraising events. It also has an endowment that provides income. Foland's work week depends on the season and project load that can become stressful, especially when projects come together at the same time. The Conservancy has two full time staff, executive director and land steward, with two part time people, an administrative assistant and conservation scientist.

"We are in the process of hiring a full time director of development and outreach," says Foland, adding that a name change is also in the works. The conservancy will soon be known as Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy to reflect work in the joining counties.

With the help of Peggy Johnson of the Metamora Hunt Country project, property owner Joan Graham couldn't be more pleased with the results of her conservancy easement and has finalized the specifics of her deed with a happy glow sweeping her face.

"I am very secure and quite impressed with the competency of the people of the Conservancy," says Graham.

Foland finds that her job benefits are found in the friends that she makes.

"I am rewarded by listening to a landowner tell stories about their relationship," she says, "and history with the land. But of course it only takes a few minutes in one of our preserves with prairie grasses rustling and birds singing to reconnect with my own relationship with the land and feel so richly rewarded by this work. How lucky I am!"

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