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Oregon conservation easement program will seek $4.25 million

EO MEDIA GROUP - Roger Ediger, a rancher in Grant County, has decided to place a conservation easement on the land that will preserve its current condition in perpetuity. Oregon legislators will likely be asked for $4.25 million next year to help pay for conservation easements.Oregon legislators will likely be asked for $4.25 million next year to pay for conservation easements that would protect farmland from development.

Plans are beginning to solidify for the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, which would provide grants to farmers interested in easements and succession planning, said Meta Loftsgaarden, executive director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

OWEB, which will oversee the program, plans to hold “listening sessions” this autumn based on concepts developed by agricultural and conservation groups before drafting proposed legislation for the 2017 legislative session, she said.

“We didn’t want to go out to farmers and ranchers with a blank slate. We really wanted to have something they could react to,” Loftsgaarden said during the Sept. 12 Oregon Board of Agriculture meeting in Pendleton, Ore.

Conservation easements are usually sold or donated by farmers who give up their development rights in exchange for tax benefits and lower property values, reducing inheritance taxes.

They haven’t been as commonly used in Oregon as in other states because of the statewide land-use planning system, but this system alone isn’t enough to prevent the fragmentation of working lands, Loftsgaarden said.

The $4.25 million wouldn’t be enough funding for everyone who wanted to sell an easement, but it would serve as a pilot program — particularly for lands inhabited by threatened or endangered species, or that are subject to “urban growth boundary” expansion, said Doug Krahmer, a blueberry farmer who sits on a work group advising the program.

The easements will have a conservation component and could be used to provide properties with regulatory protections, offering an additional incentive for farmers, Loftsgaarden said.

Currently, a similar approach is used for forestlands where owners want to grow trees older than 30 years but are afraid of creating habitat for the northern spotted owl, hindering future timber harvest, she said.

“They want bigger trees, we want bigger trees, so what we needed to provide was that protection,” Loftsgaarden said, noting that forestland owners submit management plans to the Oregon Board of Forestry and receive regulatory assurances from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

OWEB currently funds conservation easements, but these are focused on preserving native fish habitat and water quality, without emphasizing agriculture, she said.

For that reason, landowners in Oregon have had trouble getting matching state funds needed to obtain federal money available for buying conservation easements, Loftsgaarden said.

“We weren’t hitting for the same target,” she said.

OWEB is funded with lottery dollars especially slated for wildlife and water quality, but the agency may seek money from the general fund or from lottery-backed bonds that don’t have the same restrictions, Loftsgaarden said.

The fund would also be able to accept donations from organizations and individuals, said Krahmer.

Grant requests would be ranked based on the duration of the proposed easement — perpetual agreements will score higher than those which end after a certain number of years — as well as the management plan and the threat of development to the property, said Loftsgaarden.

The program would be overseen by a commission consisting of representatives from the agricultural industry, the conservation community, tribes and land use experts, with OWEB providing staff support, she said.

Agricultural groups have asked why the program wouldn’t be overseen by the Oregon Department of Agriculture while conservationists prefer the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Loftsgaarden said.

However, OWEB is already focused on grants and has representatives from both agricultural and conservation groups, she said. “OWEB sits sort of in the middle.”