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Conservation Fund Views Easements as Popular Alternative to Land Buys

Over the almost 50 years since its creation, most Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars have been doled out to federal agencies for land acquisition. But conservation advocates say funding is increasingly being steered toward alternatives that can protect outdoor spaces without expanding federal real estate ownership.

Money from the fund is increasingly spent on enticing farmers and ranchers to put conservation easements on their land, according to an aide to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, a leading congressional supporter of the program. Those arrangements leave working lands in private ownership while guaranteeing environmental protections.

Easements “can make the difference between keeping the land in the family or selling it off to developers to build something like condo buildings in place of working farmland,” said the aide to Baucus, a Montana Democrat.

Easements also have become a popular tool for protecting endangered species without putting ranchers and other landowners out of business. Western landowners have embraced easements as a better alternative, for example, to listing the sage grouse — which needs vast expanses of contiguous sagebrush to thrive — as endangered.

Seventy-two percent of the land protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in fiscal 2012 was set aside as easements, compared with 26 percent through directly acquiring ownership of property. The agency’s fiscal 2014 budget request would seek to bump up the share protected through easements to 77 percent of its target acreage.

“As [the Land and Water Conservation Fund] has grown to meet the needs of landowners across the country, the use of conservation easements is yet another tool in the toolbox that we have to make good, sound decisions on the ground,” said Alan Rowsome of The Wilderness Society.

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