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Many people know that the Hill Country Conservancy protects water, wildlife and working lands in partnership with private landowners, frequently using conservation easements. However, we are frequently asked what happens after a conservation easement is in place. Do we simply walk away, knowing that our job is done and the land will forever remain intact and healthy? Or, is there more that needs to be done to ensure that the land is truly conserved, forever?
Once a conservation easement is placed on the land, HCC becomes a conservation partner with the landowner, and a partner with all of their future heirs or subsequent owners of the land. HCC is now responsible for ensuring that the land is conserved, forever, which involves several routine procedures.
At least once per year, HCC staff will visit the property to observe whether there have been any significant changes to the land and if so, confirm that those changes are consistent with what’s allowed in the conservation easement. Our landowner partners take a lot of pride in how well they care for the land, so this is usually just a formality, where we repeat photos from established monitoring points, note unique plants and animals, and rediscover the beauty of the land. It’s a tough job, but…
Our annual visit also provides a great opportunity for developing our relationship with the landowner and discussing their future plans for the land. If there are plans to enhance or restore a habitat area, or modify agricultural activities such as grazing livestock, HCC will provide technical assistance or refer to the necessary experts to help ensure that the plans meet the landowner’s objectives and those of the conservation easement. In some cases, we may know of financial incentives that can help the landowner to allay some of the costs associated with activities such as brush management and seeding with native grasses and wildflowers. We also advise the landowner on whether any proposed development activities are consistent with the limited rights in the easement and how to develop a plan that meets their needs while protecting water, wildlife and agricultural resources.
Finally, as required by the Land Trust Alliance’s best practices we compile our annual records for each property and determine whether all current and future plans are consistent with the conservation easement. Fortunately, problems are very rare, but in some cases we follow up with the landowner to ensure that the terms of the conservation easement are upheld. Records are stored in multiple places and formats, so future HCC staff will have detailed accounts of what’s happened on the property as well as records of important discussions between HCC and the landowners. This helps to limit any risk of future confusion or miscommunication, and serves to keep both HCC and the landowner fully accountable for conserving the land according to the conservation easement.
Hill Country’s Conservancy’s job doesn’t end with the placement of the conservation easement on the land. One of our favorite conservation partners likes to say that a conservation easement is like a marriage without the option for divorce. If so, land stewardship is the baby that together we must care for, for many years to come. It’s a beautiful blessing, but it’s a lot of work. And thankfully, the responsibility never goes away.