Conservation easements stir debate

Farm Forum

Standing chest deep in a field of native wildflowers and grasses wasn’t what Steve Donovan expected when he went to check on the field his organization had recently paid to be replanted.

Donovan is conservation organization Ducks Unlimited’s manager of conservation programs in South Dakota and the field he was standing in had been covered in soybeans a year earlier. DU bought the land last fall and had paid the local conservation district to plant the grasses and wildflowers in it.

The land borders a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Production Area and can only be accessed by an unimproved trail along a section line. Donovan called it the “Gricus” property.

Undoubtedly the summer’s favorable weather conditions played a role in that growth, Donovan said. But it was still an encouraging result.

“I would anticipate that we’d be able to sell it next spring,” Donovan said. “Usually it takes two to three years.”

That’s good news for DU. The organization will use the money from selling the property to buy more land that it could use restoration or protection. For some landowners, though, the idea of an outside organization coming in buying up land and then preventing them or anyone else from planting whatever they want on it, is just plain wrong.

“We’re not big believers in the concept that one generation should be able to tie the hands the next generation,” South Dakota Farm Bureau President Scott VanderWal said.

VanderWal said the Farm Bureau hasn’t actively campaigned against easements for several years but the organization is trying to tell landowners there are other ways to provide wildlife habitat. As far as the Bureau is concerned, he said, the current owner of any given piece of land should be able to make all the decisions about how it is used.

“If you want to set aside a piece of land for wildlife you don’t need the Fish and Wildlife Service to pay for it,” VanderWal said. “We would just say that while the person who owns the land now can make the decisions, we’re uncomfortable with one generation tying the hands of the next.”

Ducks Unlimited sees things a little differently.

The price of row crops such as corn and soybeans rose at one point to nearly $8 a bushel, which drove the value of both quality and marginal cropland up and pushed many landowners into farming and away from ranching.

As more landowners switch to planting row crops, more and more grassland is disappearing from the landscape. Because wildlife depend on grassland for everything from nesting to hiding from predators, the loss is distressing to groups who are trying to keep wildlife on the landscape.

Between 2006 and 2012, according to a South Dakota State University Plant Science Department study, the state lost more than 1.8 million acres of grassland. Much of that loss was due to increases in the amount of cropland.

Donovan said landowners have every incentive to plant row crops, which provide relatively little benefit to wild animals, right now. Federal conservation easements, which pay landowners to preserve grasslands or wetlands are one of the few tools available to conservation groups that slow habitat conversion, he said.

But there’s a lot of opposition to conservation easements from a lot of landowners.

Randy Barondeau, a Faulk County rancher who is working with Ducks Unlimited to restore a piece of his property from cropland back into wetlands, said he’s caught flak for from his neighbors because of the project.

“I’ve caught a lot of heat,” he said.

Much of Barondeau’s land also is protected from the plow by conservation easements, some he sold himself, others were already there when he bought the land.

Randy Knippling, a cattle rancher near Gann Valley who heads the Brule and Buffalo County Conservation District board of directors, said conservation easements don’t pose much of a threat to him.

“The way we run our operation, we don’t break native grass,” he said.

He and his brothers along with their father run a cattle operation with about 1,000 stock cows. They’ve applied for a few federal grassland conservation easements but they haven’t been paid for them yet.

“If it’s ground I don’t want to break up in my lifetime, I don’t have a problem with it,” Knippling said.