The Evolution of Conservation Easements in Maine
Maine has done an outstanding job of buying the rights and opportunities enjoyed by the public on private lands. Through an astonishingly successful collaborative effort by state and federal agencies, the nonprofit conservation community, and advocacy groups representing environmentalists, sportsmen, and other outdoor recreationists, Maine’s outdoor heritage is being secured for future generations.
The achievement includes both fee ownership purchases of land and the less traditional purchase of conservation easements.
Recently, the Conservation Recreation Forum heard reports and discussed the status of past and current conservation easement projects and initiatives.
The Conservation Recreation Forum consists of organizations representing sportsmen, environmentalists, and landowners that meets periodically to learn about key issues, reduce areas of conflict, and find new ways to collaborate.
Bruce Kidman of The Nature Conservancy introduced the topic of conservation easements at the Forum meeting on September 17, held in the L.L. Bean Room at the Augusta conference center of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Kidman emphasized that easements are voluntary on the part of landowners and are legal documents transferring specific rights from the landowner to the easement holder (land trusts, state agencies, towns, etc.).
His presentation was informative and comprehensive, presenting an historical list of easement purchases and describing the evolution of the terms of easements, including the rights that were purchased, as the years progressed.
A Maine law enacted in 2007 reformed conservation easement law to ensure that easements continue to provide the public benefits purchased. One provision of the new law requires that each easement include a statement of the conservation purposes of the easement.
The new law also prohibits the termination or amendment of an easement in such a manner to materially detract from the conservation values without the approval of the court in an action in which the Attorney General is made a party. It also requires annual monitoring of the terms of an easement to make sure they are being honored. And the law requires each easement holder to file an annual report with the State Planning Office to allow the maintenance of a comprehensive list of all conservation easements in the state.
Tim Glidden, director of the Land for Maine’s Future Program, described the online registry of conservation easements now maintained by the state. The information collected includes the date when the easement was last monitored. The information is self-reported by the easement holder.
According to Glidden, state agencies and nonprofit groups are doing a good job of registering, but municipalities are not. Federal easements are not yet registered but will be soon. Glidden estimates he has captured 95 percent of the acreage and 90 percent of the easements so far in the registry. Only conservation easements are part of this registry (not, for example, access easements by utilities or the Department of Transportation).
At this point, the registry does not include information about the purpose of each easement and the public rights, if any that are included.
A total of 1,937,869 Maine acres are under easements today, including the largest easement in the country, the 750,000 acres in the Pingree easement. This is about 10 percent of the state’s land.
Easements on a total of 326,687 acres are held by the state, on 12,208 acres by the federal government, on 2,833 acres by municipalities, and on 1,595,141 acres by non-profit groups. Most of this easement land is working forest, located in Aroostook, Piscataquis, Somerset, and Washington County. Four large easements in these counties (one public and three private) comprise 80 percent of the acreage.
Glidden reported that most easements are privately held, and the vast majority are small. 90 percent are less than 200 acres and 80 percent are less than fifty acres, and thirty acres is the median size for easement lands. Most easements are along the coast. Since 2000, between sixty and eight easements have been completed annually, with a spike in 2007, when generous federal tax benefits were set to expire.
Also at the forum, Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, outlined the steps his organization takes to monitor the easements they hold. On large easements, the monitoring responsibilities are substantial, to assure that the promises are kept and avoid problems.
Hutchinson thinks Maine could double the amount of conservation lands in the next ten years if we had the funding and a reliable (clearer and safer for the landowners) public process.
Marcia McKeague of Katahdin Forest Company, however, added a note of caution, saying she would not recommend easements to other landowners within the existing requirements and given the lack of certainty (we’re trying to be too detailed on issues like public access and development). She believes conservation leaders are insisting on too much detail about public access and development in the easements.
Easements are evolving, recognizing the difficulty of specifying terms that will last in perpetuity. McKeague’s misgivings are real, but so too are the conservation easements now placed on almost two million acres of Maine land.
Best of all, we’ve been buying the rights we want and need to protect our quality of life and outdoor heritage. Future generations will surely thank us for that.