Conservation Conversation: Northern Waters Land Trust and Conservation Easements
Heidi Holtan: It's time for our Conservation Conversation. Once a month we connect with our partners at Northern Waters Land Trust. they have a mission to preserve land, to protect water. Today our topic: conservation easements and the Minnesota Land Trust (MLT). Joining us now from Northern Waters Land Trust (NWLT), it's John Sumption. Good morning, John. Thanks for being here.
John Sumption: Good morning, Heidi and John, on this balmy morning.
HH: Is that the word?
John Latimer: I think you're abusing that word....
JS: Unfortunately, this morning my usual cohost Annie Knight is under the weather so we’re all going to have to wait for another month until she comes on in August to brag about Baby George. I have heard that he is the best and brightest baby ever, but that may not be an unbiased opinion, so we'll have to wait and see.
We are very luck today to have Pat Collins with us from the MLT. Pat is the Conservation Program Manager for MLT and he focuses on developing new conservation easements in northern MN. Pat had a 25 career with DNR in NE MN before he joined MLT about five years ago. So Pat, we're happy to have you with us this morning and why don't you start out by reminding me a little bit about what MLT does.
Pat Collins: Great! Well thanks. It's great to join you today. MLT is a state-wide private non-profit organization that's been around since about 1991. It's been focused on helping land owners do land protection on private lands. We have more than 650 conservation easements that includes almost 450 miles of shoreline protected over our history. We also have been doing ecological restoration work on public and private lands, and we have an engagement focus area at MLT to ensure that we have future generations that are invested in caring for the natural world in the future.
JS: Why in particular do we focus on this four-county area that NWLT serves?
PC: there's really a need and an opportunity in this area to protect cold water lakes, to protect water quality and to really protect lake habitat. Lake shore lines and lake habitat is really the stuff that is most under pressure from development and we love it, but sometimes we love it a little too much. The work that we’re doing here is really a partnership between NWLT, MLT, and the state of MN, with money that we all get from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. This is that money that we get through the Legacy Act, that state sales tax that we get.
And we're on the ninth year of cold water lakes, which we sometimes call the Tullibee Lakes Project, really to protect those deep water lakes with high-quality, cold-water fish communities. And we're moving into the second phase of a program called Lakes of Outstanding Biological Significance. This is a program that targets lakes that have been designated by DNR as having very high ecological importance, whether for birds or fish or aquatic plants, but we've never had a program that's been focused on conservation to protect those particular lakes.
HH: Can you, Pat, remind us, why tullibees matter? You said you also call the cold-water program Tullibee lakes.
PC: Tullibees are a really neat fish. They're sometimes called ciscoes. They're related to lake white fish. You know, trying to figure out the genetics of that is a little bit complicated, there's a lot of different white fish. Tullibees are really important as a food for other fish. There sort of a 'candy bar' of the game fish world. Fish like walleye and northern pike and muskie, if they’re going to get really big, they're generally feeding on tullibees or cisco. So they're really important as a food for other fish. But they're a really good indicator of cold-water habitat. Tullibees require deep, cold water and if you start to lose your tullibees it really is an indicator that your cold-water fish community is at risk or in danger of being lost.
JL: That cold water that you're talking about, how critical is oxygen content in that cold water and how can you monitor that and ensure that it remains at levels that are adequate for the fish?
PC: Yeah well, that's a really good question, John. Cold water could almost be seen as a surrogate for high oxygen. Cold water carries more oxygen than warm water. So these fish that need cold water, really need high-oxygen environments. High-oxygen, very healthy communities. Healthy habitat. So you can measure that some with temperature, but temperature changes pretty rapidly and it’s sometimes hard to identify trends in just monitoring temperature if you're not out there a lot. So we sometimes look at the fish communities as an indicator of what the temperature and what oxygen level has been over the course of a year or several years. So that's another way. So you kind of look at it from two different angles. One is just taking temperature measurement and some of it is looking at what the fish community and their response to temperature and oxygen levels have been.
JL: In cold-water lakes like that, we talk about lakes turning over. Does that happen at a certain time of the year, does that happen as a result of certain events? What can shift the water in a lake like that?
PC: It's a little bit of both. Some of it has to do with how the temperature stratification works. You talk about lakes turning over, that means the cold water at the bottom of the lake starts to rise to the surface and that can happen just as the temp rises naturally or with these really hot days we get hotter and hotter surface temps and that will drive the warm water down lower. But it can also happen with wind events as the water gets churned up and those currents start to get set up that can result in a lake turnover as well.
HH: That's Pat Collins, he's from MLT, we've also got John Sumption from NWLT. It's our monthly conservation conversation. So Pat, let's talk about some of the current projects you're working on.
PC: Yeah well I'd like to let you know a few things that we've accomplished over the past year. Some pretty significant things. We’ve completed three easements. The third and final easement on Camp Olson, so now we've protected more than 560 acres at the Camp Olson YMCA property. The easements total more than 670 acres, or almost half of Camp Olson's property has been protected through this partnership that we have. We've also secured easements on another property on Kabekona Lake. Almost 200 acres there, including part of the Kabekona River which is a protected trout stream. And then we have another 60 acre protected parcel on crooked lake in Crow Wing County that we've been able to accomplish. Those have happened in the past year.
We have another 1600 acres or so of conservation easement projects that are in development to get established in the next year or so. And we've also kicked off a pretty major landowner outreach effort that's targeting land owners that have properties on the priority lakes that we have for protection. These cold-water, or high biologically significant lakes, and we're still accepting applications for that program. So we're looking for land owners who are interested in protecting their land in these high-priority watersheds.
JS: Maybe you can give us an elevator speech about what a conservation easement is.
PC: Conservation easements are really a voluntary agreement between a private landowner, and an organization like a land trust that holds some of the rights for that property. So in general, the landowner wants to protect something on their property and records a permanent conservation easement which gets attached to the title of the property and protects certain conservation values in perpetuity. And that's done through a kind of a complicated real estate deal.
But we really work with landowners to walk through what the goals of the land owner, what the goals of the land trust are, and in this case the State of MN with the funding that comes to bare, and how to protect that land in a way that lasts forever. So it stays with the property. And we often times protect shoreline from being developed, we often protect land from getting fragmented, so split up into smaller and smaller parcels. And we try to protect real important native plant communities and natural vegetation that helps to protect water and habitat in these watersheds.
JL: You guys have been at this for a while. Has there been, with transfer of ownership, you know, I've got a land easement, and I sell the land for whatever reason, and the next owner comes in agreeing to the land easement, I mean no choice, but maybe not as conscientious or maybe actually doing things that are sort of contrary to the easement. Any of that going on and what happens when incidents like that arise?
PC: Most of our landowners are really good and most of the people that purchase land that has a conservation easement on it are buying it because of the conservation value. And they like the protection.
But that said, there are people that sometimes acquire land and they might not understand what a conservation easement is and if they are unhappy with something they may want to do something that is contrary to the terms of the easement. And what we do as an organization is we have a relationship with all of our landowners, so all of those 650 easements we have a relationship with those land owners and we try and head things off before people start to do something that might not be appropriate for that property. We also have a cadre of volunteer monitors that, between volunteers and staff, are out on those properties every year. So we monitor every property every year and further build that relationship. So we hope to protect the land and protect the terms of the easement so that things don’t go wrong.
We have had a couple of cases where it's not gone quite so well and we have taken people to court. A landowner may try and do something that's prohibited by the terms of the easement, and we enforce our easements to the full extent of the law. It's something that we take very seriously. We take that responsibility of protecting that land and protecting the terms of the easement based on what the original land owner wanted to do very seriously. It can come to that, it's really rare though. So most of our landowners are on the properties because they love it and they want it protected. So we rarely have to go that route.
JL: That's good to hear and reassuring.
HH: And it's a nice relationship. I live on a property that has a conservations easement and we bought it from people and bought into it for that reason. But we wondered about things like property taxes, we wondered about when we were ready to sell it, if it would be of interest to people. We figured by the time we're ready to sell it, people are going to want to conserve land even more. How do you answer those sorts of questions for land owners?
PC: Properties that are protected by an easement sell with some regularity, so there is a market for it. It's a subset of buyers though. Some buyers want to have that protection, and it can provide some benefit to a buyer because it will often times reduce the sale value of a property because when you put an easement on a property, it is giving up certain rights that a landowner has. And that's why this needs to be done voluntarily and with your eyes wide open going into this relationship.
So it does often times affect the value of the property when you go to sell it. We can, in some cases, when we have funding to do so, compensate landowners who want to enter into these agreements for the reduction in sale value. Sometimes it takes a little longer to sell properties with conservation easements, because you are dealing with a smaller pool of potential buyers. But oftentimes you are dealing with people who are looking for that protected property and the habitat values and the natural values that are there. Sometimes that’s a benefit for you.
Sometimes it can help with intergenerational transfer of land, if you're dealing with a property that is a little lower price tag because it has a conservation easement on it. Sometimes that can help with kids or relatives acquiring the property in that intergenerational transfer. It tends not to be a real reliable way to reduce your property taxes. There are some cases where it can occur but it's fairly rare for property taxes to get reduced with a conservation easement.
HH: What's next, and what about some opportunities for folks to find out more information?
JS: We happen to have one coming up tomorrow afternoon (July 20, 2022). All the things Pat was just talking about are going to be addressed in a landowner QA workshop that we're having virtually. And we'll have representatives from MLT and from our staff so that people can learn more about our conservation easement and acquisition programs and how they work. And for more information you can go to our website: Northernwaterslandtrust.org On the website you can go to the events page and click on the landowner QA workshop. That'll be from 3-430 tomorrow afternoon.
HH: That is John Sumption along with Pat Collins from MLT and this has been our Conservation Conversation for the month. Thanks you guys, we wish you the best!