Easements help keep land in farming

By KATY NESBITT/FOR THE CAPITAL PRESS
Published on June 16, 2016 10:42AM – original source article

Capital Press-Wolfe Ranch

The confluence of the Wallowa and Lostine rivers was protected from development through a conservation easement agreement between the Wallowa Land Trust and the Woody Wolfe Ranch.

ENTERPRISE, Ore. — When making decisions about the future of the family farm worries about taxes and values loom large. Nonprofits and agencies throughout the Northwest, such as Wallowa Land Trust, work with landowners to find ways to reduce income taxes while planning a lasting legacy.

Julia Lakes, the trust’s conservation director, told attendees at a May workshop in Enterprise that conservation easements are one way they can help landowners keep property in the family during estate planning.

“The land trust uses its experience to ‘ballpark’ what you want the end result to be and helps lay out the path before a lot of money is expended,” Lakes said.

Attorney Nancy Duhnkrack kicked off the workshop with an overview of how easements work.

“Conservation easements allow landowners to voluntarily restrict how land is used in the future to protect the property’s values,” Duhnkrack said.

She said conservation easements are becoming increasingly popular, not just to keep working farmland intact, but because tax incentives, recently made permanent by Congress, make them economically advantageous.

“The landowner still owns the property and retains the right to sell it, lease it, pass it on,” Duhnkrack said. “It is the job of the land trust or public agency to monitor and make sure the restrictions in the easement continue to be in place.”

Wallowa County’s economy is dependent on natural resources, primarily through agriculture, timber harvest and tourism. Tourism alone brought in $28 million in 2015, according to a Dean Runyan and Associates study. The stunning scenery attracts short-time visitors and the development of vacation homes that can cause farmland fragmentation and put the rural flavor of the county at risk.

The fear of losing farmland to development prompted the trust’s formation in 2004. It’s signature bumper sticker, “Keep it Rural!”, simply states its mission.

Woody Wolfe, a sixth-generation Wallowa County farmer, was the first to use the trust to create a 197-acre easement on his farm. Wolfe said his first easement has two zones; one is working farmland and the other is a riparian zone where cattle once grazed.

“In the ag zone I gave up the right to build except for agricultural structures, but the riparian restrictions are much greater,” Wolfe said.

Duhnkrack said what rights a landowner gives up and what he retains are entirely up to him.

Wolfe said soon after he purchased a tract of land from a neighbor he started talking to James Monteith, one of the founding board members of the trust, about entering into an easement agreement to help pay off the loan.

“The highest and best use is not running cows or growing crops, it’s what somebody out of the area is willing to pay for breathing the air, having no traffic and looking at the mountains,” Wolfe said.

In 2011, Lakes said, the trust paid Wolfe 70 percent of the easement’s value with grant money and the family donated the remainder.

For the second easement on 257 acres, Wolfe is taking advantage of a USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service grant that pays 50 percent of the land’s value. Lakes said the NRCS allows the landowner to donate up to 25 percent and the other 25 percent is coming from private foundations and the Nez Perce Tribe.

Director Kathleen Ackley said the second easement is an attractive project for the trust because it is adjacent to the first — creating a larger protected swath of land.

“It’s about landscape-scale connectivity,” Lakes said. “Protecting big chunks keep agriculture viable.”

Wolfe said not everyone understands the benefit of conservation easements.

“There is a little bit of value to neighbors when you don’t change the land as much as you could have,” Wolfe said. “As a neighbor may not agree with using a conservation easement, but you might rest at ease when there is less likelihood there will be something across your fence line that detracts from your serenity.”