Michael Pearce

Bill to restrict conservation easements drawing attention in Topeka

Conservation easements allow owners to make sure their lands remain undeveloped for perpetuity. A current bill could change that.
Conservation easements allow owners to make sure their lands remain undeveloped for perpetuity. A current bill could change that. File photo

A Kansas legislative bill that could limit how landowners arrange for their lands to be handled is drawing scorn from conservation groups and some landowners, but support from an association of county commissions. If passed, the bill would allow county commissions to set regulations for conservation easements, which protect private lands from future development, such as oil drilling, housing developments, and wind farms.

Currently, landowners who sign up for conservation easements set conditions approved by groups like the Nature Conservancy of Kansas or the Kansas Ranchland Trust. Such conditions for preservation remain attached to the land for perpetuity. Landowners are usually compensated with hefty tax breaks.

Proponents of the bill have said they think conservation easements can put too much limitations on future landowners, and can negatively impact neighboring landowners, among other concerns.

Jim Carlson, Kansas Natural Resources Coalition executive director, said his group, which represents 19 county commissions, helped author the bill. Carlson said counties should be able to ensure landowners enrolling lands into conservation easements be required to notify neighboring landowners, so they could express concerns.

Rob Manes, Nature Conservancy of Kansas director, said the most common easements in Kansas are set to protect both crucial wildlife habitat and prime, natural prairie grazing lands. He gave the example of a Flint Hills rancher wanting to make sure prairie that may have been in the family for more than 100 years remains intact, for wildlife and cattle grazing.

“He just keeps right on managing that land, grazing it with his cattle, like his family probably has for generations,” said Manes.

Sen. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, and chairman of the Senate Committee of Natural Resources, introduced the bill in 2015, and has kept it alive when it didn’t get passed last year. Though in committee hearings Wednesday morning, by mid-afternoon his staff said Powell was in Washington and couldn’t comment on the matter until Monday. Powell did not return several calls or e-mails from the Eagle last year on the matter.

Carlson said his group is not opposed to conservation easements, but said there are things that should be considered, and that it would be best if a county government had some say because it’s at the most localized level.

“It’s always best when we bring decision making close to the people,” he said. “Whatever it may be.”

Sid McKnight, a Linn County landowner, said he has strong feelings against the proposed bill because he’s considering putting his 500 acres of land into a conservation easement.

“I think it’s the right of the present landowner to determine if he never wants a Casey’s on the land or have it sub-divided in the future. It’s like saying if you own a home you can’t put in a patio because it might impact a future homeowner,” he said. “I find it ironic we hear all these people angry because we have too much government in our lives, running things that should be our decisions…and now we have (legislators) dreaming up bills that would put county governments in even more control of what we can do with our own land.”

Manes said there are currently about 160,000 acres of conservation easements in Kansas, spread across the state and sponsored by a variety of conservation, government agencies and grazing groups.

“These easements are a way for groups, like ours, to protect large amounts of habitat in a way we can afford and so the lands still remain in private ownership,” he said. “This is a lot better than us buying the land. The landowner gets a fair deal and we get more habitat for our money. It’s cost effective, it’s ecologically effective and the landowners usually keep doing what they’ve been doing, like ranching or farming.”

Manes and McKnight said the tax savings could be hugely beneficial when a property is left from one generation to another.

“So many times the taxes are so high the kids who inherit the land have to sell it,” said Manes. “Conservation easements can relieve a lot of that stress. Most times the kids want to see the land managed and protected just like the parent or grandparent who left it to them.”

If sold, most lands in conservation easements sell at a slightly lower cost per acre. In the past, officials with the Ranchland Trust of Kansas said that can be good because it makes the land more affordable for farmers or ranchers interested in keeping the property in farming or grazing, and not development.

A landowner, Carlson said he’s supports landowner-rights, but thinks it’s possible lands bordering conservation easements could also lose value. He also expressed concerns that lands put into easements could eventually lead to decreased tax revenues for a county if working lands are converted to prairie or other wildlife habitat.

Manes said currently only about one-third of one percent of land in Kansas is under conservation easement. Even with better funding, he doubts the amount would reach one percent in the next 50 years. Carlson predicted that if conservation easements remain at minimal percentages of land, some counties might choose to not even get involved.

“S.B. 425, it allows counties the purogative to regulate certain aspects of conservation easements,” said Carlson, “but it doesn’t require them to.”

In addition to Manes, representatives from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, Audubon of Kansas and Ducks Unlimited have testified against the bill. Pheasants Forever, the U.S. Department of Defense and several Kansas landowners have also gotten involved. Carlson has testified in favor of the bill.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, is on the natural resources committee and said he “didn’t expect the bill to (pass) this year because it didn’t make it last year.” Manes said he and other members of the conservation community felt strongly enough they will continue to follow the bill, and testify as often as possible.

McKnight, thinks the bill and entire committee proceedings are “silly.”

“You know, (conservation easements) aren’t secrets. When land goes up for sale that’s a well known part of the deal,” he said. “Anyone wanting to buy the land will learn about it right away. Nobody will force them to buy land that has a conservation easement.”