Grasslands for the Future
$2,000,000 in the first year is to the Board of Water and Soil Resources for a pilot project to acquire permanent conservation easements on grasslands in cooperation with the Minnesota Land Trust and the Conservation Fund. Up to $1,850,000 may be used for agreements with the Minnesota Land Trust to acquire permanent conservation easements and up to $75,000 may be used for establishing monitoring and enforcement funds with the Minnesota Land Trust and the Board of Water and Soil Resources, as approved in the accomplishment plan and subject to Minnesota Statutes, section 97A.056, subdivision 17. Up to $75,000 may be used for an agreement with the Conservation Fund for professional services. Easements funded under this appropriation are not subject to emergency haying and grazing orders. Any net proceeds accruing to a project partner from real estate transactions related to this project must be used for the purposes outlined in this appropriation. A must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan.
Core areas protected with highly biologically diverse wetlands and plant communities, including native prairie, Big Woods, and oak savanna.
Protected, restored, and enhanced shallow lakes and wetlands.
Expiring CRP lands are permanently protected.
Remnant native prairies and wetlands are permanently protected and are part of large complexes of restored prairie, grasslands, and large and small wetlands.
Water is kept on the land.
Increased participation of private landowners in habitat projects.
Protected, restored, and enhanced habitat for waterfowl, upland birds, and species of greatest conservation need.
This pilot project tested the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of acquiring grassland conservation easements and protected 459 acres of critical and threatened grassland habitat, through one MLT easement and two BWSR-RIM easements. Through partner coordination among BWSR, MLT, TCF and local SWCD's, this proposal contributed to implementation of the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.
A Conservation Legacy in Jeopardy
Native grasslands are the most threatened ecosystem in Minnesota. The LSOHC defined Prairie Section has suffered the greatest habitat loss of any of the five sections examined by the Council. Furthermore, only a third of the remaining habitat in the Prairie Section is permanently protected. To compound the problem, in the next five years approximately 800,000 acres of Minnesota’s conservation lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will expire. Unless action is taken to continue protection of these lands by using a combination of conservation programs, many will likely be converted to cropland, eliminating most of the wildlife habitat and associated ecosystem benefits.
This project piloted new and innovative approaches to securing conservation easements to permanently protect large assemblages of critical grassland habitat. The need for this private lands approach in the Prairie Section is essential because ownership patterns in this landscape include many private landowners with smaller parcels that require custom-tailored conservation solutions. These solutions often involve crafting easements that assure conservation of the grasslands while also working with the landowner to make the management of the grasslands profitable and therefore, sustainable.
Lands targeted for protection through this pilot met the following criteria:
Near or within the Core Areas identified in the Prairie Plan.
Within approximately two miles of permanently protected land.
Establishing connections to permanently protected land wherever possible.
Within approximately five miles of a viable producer with a proven track record of managing grasslands with livestock and willing to own land protected by a permanent easement mandating grassland conservation management methods and practices.
Low production cropland.
Once these priority grassland complexes had been identified, the project partners tested three important protection elements in order to determine how to best implement a cost-effective grasslands program at a larger scale:
First, landowners within these identified complexes were offered a menu of land protection options to assess what is of greatest interest or application in this landscape.
One of the options included a model in which a non-profit partner, The Conservation Fund (TCF), would use its revolving fund to acquire land in fee from a landowner not interested in maintaining their land as a working grassland. TCF would hold ownership until funds are available to sell a conservation easement to an easement holder such as Minnesota Land Trust (MLT) or the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). Once the easement is in place, TCF would subsequently sell the underlying fee, now reduced in value by the conservation easement, to a pre-identified local producer. This approach allows TCF to act quickly to acquire land that would otherwise be sold and converted to row crops. The value of the easement, and the value of the land sold to the local producer, will be determined by an appraisal.
Outcome - This option was investigated, but unfortunately due to a number of factors was not chosen by any landowners.
Another option was for the landowner to sell a conservation easement directly to the BWSR or the MLT. All easement acquisition funds were allocated to BWSR. Once specific easements and their respective holders were identified, BWSR allocated the funds necessary to MLT to complete their acquisition through a State approved contract.
Outcome - One MLT easement was recorded on 284 acres in Pope County. Two RIM easements were recorded for 45.8 acres in Chippewa County and 129.5 acres in Murray County.
The second element being tested was how to best implement grasslands protection in a private, working landscape. This included developing conservation easements and management plans that protect the important grassland and prairie habitats while simultaneously providing the agricultural producers with residual economic value through restricted grazing or haying. This is a critical issue for the ultimate success of the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.
Outcome - BWSR, MLT, and TCF worked together to develop a grazing plan template and for the MLT secured easement a conservation grazing plan was developed and is being implemented that allows a level of utilization of the grassland while prioritizing wildlife habitat.
Finally, this pilot project also explored how BWSR and non-profit partners can most cost effectively value and secure these unique conservation easements. This included an evaluation of all of the costs, potential leverage of federal programs, timing and landowner interest in the easements’ value to bring a program to scale.
Outcome - Valuations of easement payments to landowners between the RIM program and individual appraisals show general agreement in compensation.
This pilot project worked with local producers who were interested in promoting conservation compatible agriculture and who are interested in conservation easements that allow them to remain competitive in today’s climate of escalating agricultural land prices. This approach allowed state conservation funds to potentially leverage current or future federal funding via the Farm & Ranchland Protection Program, Grassland Reserve Program, or CRP. Due primarily to unavailability of federal funds non were utilized on the three secured easements. Management costs for maintaining grassland habitat will be largely borne by the local producer as part of their operation rather than be a continuous financial burden on the government. Finally, this approach also keeps land on the local tax rolls and helps to promote a diversified local economy.
As an attachment to this final report is a seven page document that goes into detail on each of the points being piloted with this project.
The conclusions of this project included:
1. BWSR’s RIM program is high volume, one size fits all. While MLT/TCF are lower volume but can be flexible when necessary.
2. At an individual easement level combining State government and non-profit (MLT and TCF for example) programs was not shown to be needed and did not provide benefits beyond what each entities programs could offer individually. While it is extremely valuable to have both program options operating within the same geography and acting in complementary fashions, they are different enough that combining them into one program did not create an advantage.
3. It is important that a landowner have options that include both government and non-government easement programs so they can decide which works best for them.
4. Valuations of easement payments to landowners between the RIM program and individual appraisals show general agreement in compensation.
5. BWSR and MLT/TCF are able to utilize RIM or other funds from various appropriations to secure an easement. For example, the Chippewa site would not have been permanently protected if BWSR was not able to utilize both OHF and Bonding funding. This demonstrates how public and private entities can combine funding sources to enhance their effectiveness and why coordination of public and private programs is important.
6. This pilot delivered a very successful working grassland habitat protection project as one of its outcomes, which included a model or template conservation grazing plan. MLT will monitor this property 2x per year to ensure compliance with the conservation easement terms.
7. Landowner interest will fluctuate with commodity prices and land values making the timing of appropriations important to get right.
8. Conservation easements satisfy only a portion of the landowner’s overall goals for their properties and must work in concert with the other uses and needs of private landowners.