Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Great Easement Debate

One of the hottest debates in the land trust world revolves around a recent article in the L.A. Times about a conservation easement granted on Las Tablas Ranch in Paso Robles, California. Here's how the Times sets the story...
..neighbors and local conservationists were much relieved when the owners, the family of rancher Mike Bonnheim, signed an agreement a few years ago to forever protect most of their land from development.
But soon they were startled and dismayed to hear the piercing whine of chain saws and see pallets of freshly cut and split oak trucked from the ranch, bound for firewood markets.
"It was hundreds of truckloads, easily," said Ralph Ward, a neighbor who works as a carpenter. "I do not consider cutting live oaks conservation…. I am very sad…. I am not an extreme tree hugger."
The cutting goes on, specifically allowed under a conservation easement that the owners signed with a local land trust in return for lucrative development credits granted by San Luis Obispo County.
Conservation easements are land-use agreements that usually provide financial incentives for keeping land primarily as open space. Some easements have become controversial, however, because they resemble tax shelters or don't meet public expectations for conservation.
The Bonnheim ranch easement "was negotiated under the guise of halting development in rural areas," said former county planning commissioner and environmental activist Pat Veesart. "How is timber [cutting] consistent with the purpose of a conservation easement?"
Veesart's criticism is part of the nationwide debate over how best to structure and police conservation easements to ensure that natural resources are protected and that the public dollars that often help underwrite the easements are well spent."

The Rest of The Story
So is this a case of easement abuse? The issue is being debated by people interested in land trusts and in the greater environmental movement. The image of hundred year old oaks being cut into firewood has many people upset, others worrying that it will cast all easements into a negative light. While the leaders of the land trust involved are heard from in the story, the executive director doesn't think his side was adequately told. Brian Stark of Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County wrote a spirited defense of the easement and the way the trust has handled it. I asked permission to run it here, which Brian allowed. But he also passed along his letter to the editor of the L.A. Times, which the Times hasn't published.... but I gladly will. Here's the letter.
Dear Editor,
We are disappointed with Tim Reiterman’s recent article “Ranch’s Easement Spawns Controversy” because it does little to describe the important conservation result achieved on the Las Tablas Ranch and instead focuses on activities occurring on a mere 1% of the ranch. Moreover, it tarnishes our organization through unwarranted references to conservation issues that do not apply to this case or to our Conservancy in general.
The article should have addressed the importance of preventing residential development on rural lands. This easement forever protects 5,500 acres of the Las Tablas Ranch from the hundreds of homes and miles of roads that could eventually have been built there. Development would have brought hundreds of people (with their cars and pets and related pollution), the extension of utilities that would encourage development of neighboring ranches, and miles of fences that would block the movement of wildlife. Such development of homes and infrastructure would surely have led to the loss of many more trees than those removed by the Bonnheims’ management practices and damaged the entire ecology of the region: Las Tablas Ranch might have ended up like Porter Ranch or Thousand Oaks.
The article mentions various recent criticisms of conservation easements, but please note: 1) No public money was spent on this easement. While it is the result of a San Luis Obispo County program, all funding is from private sources. The casual allusions to state bond-funded projects and public expectations are misleading; 2) The Land Conservancy of SLO County strictly monitors the Bonnheims’ compliance with the easement’s conditions and will use all available legal means to enforce those terms. The reference to “weaknesses in enforcement” does not apply here; 3) Our Conservancy conducts all our activities in accordance with the Land Trust Alliance’s Standards and Practices, which ensure ethical and effective conservation transactions.
Conservation Easements are a very valuable conservation tool and the public needs to know that these are voluntary transactions with landowners. Each easement is custom written to meet conservation goals while retaining reasonable land uses on the property. The Bonnheims did not have to conserve anything. They instead chose to restrict development even though development would have been more lucrative.
The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County feels strongly that protecting oak woodlands is important and we respect the public views that support this goal. The Bonnheims have been good stewards of their entire ranch, a point your article neglects. We believe that the minimal timber management underway will not fundamentally damage this oak woodland and that the Las Tablas Ranch Conservation Easement provides protection that far exceeds the limited impacts seen in the small managed area.

Brian Stark
Executive Director
Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County

To me, the most telling thing is that no public money was spent on the easement. This wasn't an easement done for tax purposes.... private money raised by the trust was used to buy the easement. And the trust knew what it was getting. A conscious decision was made that the greater good was to keep the land free from development, while allowing it to remain a working ranch. You can make the argument that it's better for the trees to stay, and no clearing be allowed. But it seems like if those were the conditions, the easement would have never been sold, and all the land would have eventually turned into a housing development.
Again, it goes back to educating the public and yes, the media (of which I'm a member) of the nuances of conservation easements. It's the old story of living in the real world and making the best choices you can. In this case, The Land Conservancy leaders made a choice that it was better to keep the ranch as it is now, than to let it turn into something more developed.


Blogger Andy Brett said...

Thanks for posting the letter, Pat. It certainly does bring out some very telling points in the case.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Pat Burns said...

Happy to do it. Think of Nature Noted as your Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page.

9:10 PM  

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