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Published: Saturday, 12/2/2006

Conservation easement a really good 'deed'

BY KEVIN JOYCE
Joyce: Protecting our natural heritage is vital for the future Joyce: Protecting our natural heritage is vital for the future
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I WORK for a small organization you may never have heard of. It's in the basement of a small brick building in Perrysburg. Its name is the Black Swamp Conservancy. The conservancy was formed when a group of local citizens became alarmed about the rapidly accelerating rate of development in rural northwest Ohio.

The conservancy's purpose is to encourage conservation of agricultural and natural lands for the benefit of current and future generations.

Established in 1993, the conservancy is only 13 years old, yet in this time it has had many successes. Originally focused on Perrysburg, the conservancy has grown to become a regional organization. Our protected properties now span all of northwest Ohio, from near the Indiana border in Paulding County to the Lake Erie islands, and reach across the state line into southeast Michigan.

We have permanently protected 4,600 acres of prime farmland and scenic natural areas in nine Ohio counties: Defiance, Erie, Fulton, Lucas, Ottawa, Paulding, Sandusky, Seneca, and Wood, and Monroe County in Michigan.

That's thousands of acres of woods, farmland, wetlands, and shoreline that will never become a shopping center, office building, or housing development. Shopping centers, office buildings, and new homes all serve an important purpose. Conserving our rapidly shrinking farmland and natural areas does, too.

So what, exactly, is the Black Swamp Conservancy? We are a nonprofit conservation organization called a land trust. Sometimes we buy and maintain land in its natural condition. For instance, we own the 192-acre Forrest Woods Nature Preserve in Paulding County and our Lake Erie Islands Chapter owns Ladd-Carr Wildlife Woods, a three-acre parcel on South Bass Island.

Unlike the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, or your local park district, though, the property we protect generally stays in the hands of private landowners.

That's possible because our land conservation projects usually involve an obscure legal document known as a deed of conservation easement.

A conservation easement is a voluntary land protection agreement between a landowner and a nonprofit land trust like Black Swamp Conservancy. The agreement limits the use of the land in order to protect important conservation values. The landowner and land trust agree on how the property can and cannot be used in the future. A farmer might agree that his land can never be used for any purpose other than agriculture. The owner of a woods or wetland might agree never to build on her property.

The details of the agreement are written into a deed of conservation easement. The document is then filed with the county recorder, much like the deed of title to your home. Once the conservation easement is recorded, anyone interested in buying the property can learn about the easement by conducting a title search before deciding whether to purchase the land.

Conservation easements don't involve a change in ownership. The landowner continues to own and manage the property, with all the rights of ownership except those he agreed to give up when he signed the document. And conservation easements protect property in perpetuity. They are binding on the landowner who signs the agreement and on every future owner of the property. After the easement is recorded, the land trust's job is to ensure that the terms of the document are not violated. At least once a year, one or two representatives of Black Swamp Conservancy visit each protected property.

These property monitors will report to the conservancy if the conservation easement is being violated. When a violation is found, the conservancy will take steps to stop it. If all other options fail, the conservancy may file a lawsuit to obtain a court order requiring correction of the violation and return of the property to its original condition.

Economics is a reason our work is so important. Agriculture and food is the leading industry in Ohio - a $79 billion industry - but we are losing prime farmland at a rate second only to Texas. That trend cannot continue without crippling the Buckeye State's economy. Preservation of working farms is critical to assuring the continued success of Ohio's agriculture industry. Our farmland preservation partners include John and Valerie Myers of Swanton.

Their farm is recognized by the state as a Century Farm because the Myers family has been farming this land for more than 100 years, in fact, since at least 1829. I say "since at least 1829" because earlier Lucas County records were lost in a flood. The Myers land will forever be used exclusively for farming, protected by an agricultural conservation easement jointly held by the conservancy and the state Department of Agriculture.

Protecting plants and wildlife is another reason the conservancy's work is so important. We protect some of our region's most important natural areas.

Forrest Woods Nature Preserve is the last remaining large, undisturbed piece of the former Great Black Swamp. The preserve is home to nearly 400 plant species and more than 130 bird species. The Audubon Society recognizes it as an important bird area. A blue heron rookery can be found in the preserve's large oak trees.

Protecting the preserve is especially significant when you consider that we have already lost 90 percent of our wetlands in Ohio. The conservancy also contributes to the quality of life we enjoy in northwest Ohio. Poorly planned development causes traffic congestion, air and water pollution, and increased demand for costly public services, while protected natural areas provide recreational opportunities and respite from the hectic pace of modern life.

The conservancy holds a conservation easement on The 577 Foundation in Perrysburg, a 12-acre environmental education center and meeting place for nonprofit organizations. This beautiful community gathering place was made possible by the late Virginia Secor Stranahan, who was determined not to allow the eventual development of her estate on the banks of the Maumee River. Protected by the conservancy, the foundation's grounds will remain a valuable community resource forever. Land conservation is an idea whose time is now.

In 2000, Ohioans voted to establish the Clean Ohio Conservation Fund, a $400 million program to preserve green space and farmland. We have used the fund to permanently protect many acres of rich agricultural land such as the Myers farm and biologically diverse natural areas like Forrest Woods.

A new law passed by Congress this year contains enhanced tax incentives for landowners who donate conservation easements to organizations like the conservancy. We anticipate that this new law will generate greater interest than ever in conservation easement donations, especially among moderate-income landowners such as farmers. We owe a great debt of thanks to the many partners who have contributed to the conservancy's success, including our financial supporters, local foundations, volunteers, board members, and landowners.

With continued support, we will be able to do even more to help landowners protect our community's natural heritage - for us, our children, and our grandchildren.

Kevin Joyce is executive director of the Black Swamp Conservancy in Perrysburg.



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