Vail Daily column: Conservation easements are a powerful tool
At Eagle Valley Land Trust, we protect land and water through a tool called a conservation easement. Many of Eagle Valley Land Trust’s conservation easements protect land that is publicly accessible to anyone living in or visiting our community, but Eagle Valley Land Trust also protects land that remains in private ownership. Most often this means only the owner and their invited guests are allowed to access the property. Conservation easements must protect conservation values that are beneficial to the public, not just the individual landowner. What public benefit can there be, if the public is not allowed to access a property Eagle Valley Land Trust conserves? To answer this, we first need to know the reasons why land trusts protect land.
Protecting land can provide easy access to recreational activities for the public, and Eagle Valley Land Trust often takes on projects that do this. If a key piece of privately owned land provides access to a large trail system on U.S. Forest Service land or to a section of river that is exclusively privately owned, then a town or the county acquiring that land for public access makes a lot of sense. Protecting that land with Eagle Valley Land Trust ensures future policy makers won’t be tempted to sell or change the use of that land because of hard economic times or other pressures. However, this is only one of the many goals we have in mind when conserving land. There are many benefits to conservation that do not require public access.
Promoting Ecological Health
Protecting land promotes animal and plant health through the protection of their habitats. Conserved land contributes to cleaner and more abundant water for our community by reducing the amount of paved surfaces, thereby maintaining the natural filtering action of the land around our streams and rivers. When Eagle Valley Land Trust helps landowners preserve their private ranches and farms, more food is produced locally. This means food is fresher, uses less energy to get to us and is more sustainable. Preserving this land reduces water demands thereby protecting our rafting and fishing experiences. This also helps to keep our local economy diverse by retaining these sectors of our economy as population grows and development pressure increases. By protecting private land, Eagle Valley Land Trust can preserve important local history. Our community is richer by retaining some of its roots in ranching and protecting that history. Land conservation can ensure that natural landmarks and historic sites remain for future generations to reflect on. Lastly, if you ask anyone in Eagle County what they enjoy about our community, the natural beauty and scenic views will top most people’s list. These scenic views are the foundation of our community and its well-being. They transform our ski days, daily commutes and family picnics into something especially rewarding, perhaps even spiritual.
Our community enjoys many direct and indirect public benefits from the preservation of private property even though these lands do not allow for public access. If Eagle Valley Land Trust limited its projects to only those projects providing public access, then our community would miss important opportunities to share in the benefits listed above as more, and more remote, subdivisions changed our landscape. Rural subdivisions and their roads fragment wildlife habitat and put pressure on every species found in our community. They reduce land available for food production and make our economy less diverse. The roads, parking lots and sidewalks necessary for modern development contribute to a number of pollutants entering our rivers from sediment to fertilizers to oil and other chemicals. How disappointed would you feel to see a new road cut or building interrupting your favorite vista as you hiked a treasured trail or as you skied your favorite run?
For these reasons, conservation easements on privately owned land are a powerful and useful tool that help our community to be healthy and economically resilient even if the land is not accessible to the public. Conserving one’s land is a very personal decision that rests with the landowner, but that decision affects us all. Even if the landowner is compensated for preserving their land, the benefit to the public is undeniable.
Scott Conklin is the interim director of development and communications for the Eagle Valley Land Trust. He lives in Edwards and can be reached at email@example.com. For more information about the work of your local land trust and their land conservation program, call 970-748-7654 or visit http://www.evlt.org