What is conservation easement stewardship?
When a landowner grants a conservation easement to MFT, they enter into a long-term working relationship with us. Our Stewardship Department is entrusted with upholding the promises that MFT makes to landowners and the public to protect farmland forever. Stewards and landowners have the opportunity to work alongside each other to protect the conservation values of these properties, and landowners play an important role in this process. When ownership of a property changes hands, Stewards engage the new owner in a similar relationship to ensure that the land remains protected.
Conservation easement stewardship at MFT involves regular contact with landowners, visiting properties to walk the land, and documenting changes with photos and written reports—all for the greater purpose of enforcing the terms of each conservation easement.
Why does MFT need to visit my property each year?
Once MFT protects a property with a conservation easement we are legally obligated to enforce the terms of the easement and visit the property on a regular basis. MFT accomplishes this by visiting its conservation interests on the ground once annually and keeping in touch with landowners in order to understand their plans for their land. The more contact MFT is able to have with its landowners, the better we are able to understand their plans and prevent potential violations to conservation easements.
Alternatively, MFT also occasionally monitors some of its conservation interests by aerial monitoring. We select properties in remote areas, or those that have less activity, for this type of monitoring. MFT hires an airplane to fly over these properties and take pictures from the air. Stewards then review these images to see if there have been any significant changes on the property since the last monitoring visit. If stewards observe a significant change that they were previously unaware of, such as a large-scale timber harvest or a new structure, they will follow up with the landowner by phone and possibly visit the property. If no significant changes are observed, stewards do not need to visit the property on the ground that year and, instead, will follow up with the landowner by sending a letter to confirm that they are in compliance with the terms of their conservation easement.
Do I need to be present at my monitoring visit?
It is always ideal for stewards to be able to meet with landowners in person and walk the property together at a monitoring visit. This visit is MFT’s annual opportunity to answer a landowner’s questions about their conservation easement in person and learn about different projects that are planned for the property. If you are unable to walk the property with your steward at the monitoring visit, other options include talking with the steward and then allowing them to walk the property on their own, or catching up with your steward on the phone to update them on recent projects that are happening on your property. If you are physically unable to walk your property, it is also common for landowners and stewards to drive to different parts of the property together in a truck or other off-road vehicle.
Who should I ask if I have a question about my conservation easement?
The Steward who has been assigned to your part of the state will be able to answer all of your questions regarding your conservation easement. MFT’s Stewardship Department staff have broad experience interpreting conservation easement language and assisting landowners with their inquiries.
(Click the map to find which Steward works in your area)
When should I contact MFT?
Most conservation easements require that landowners contact MFT prior to conducting certain activities on their land. Each conservation easement is different, so landowners should always review the relevant sections of their easement to see what responsibilities they have prior to beginning a new project.
Here are a few examples of when to contact a steward:
- When planning to build a permanent structure or expand an existing structure
- When planning large-scale surface alterations (like a new pond or drainage ditch)
- When seeking approval for a structure outside of a building area
- When updating your forest management plan or planning a timber harvest
- When you aren’t sure if an activity is permitted by your easement
What are my responsibilities as a landowner with a conservation easement?
As the owner of a property with a conservation easement on it, landowners are responsible for complying with the specific terms of your easement. While each conservation easement is unique, most landowners are responsible for at least the following:
- Complying with the terms of the conservation easement and working with stewards to resolve any compliance issues
- Allowing stewards access to your land in order to conduct annual monitoring visits and other related visits as necessary
- Contacting stewards to provide notice or seek approval for certain activities when required by your conservation easement, and otherwise corresponding with and responding to MFT when necessary
- Reviewing documents such as monitoring reports and Supplemental Baseline Data Reports
- Obtaining all necessary local, state and federal land use permits for permitted structures and activities
I changed my mind about my conservation easement, what are my options?
Once an easement is granted, the restrictions remain in place and must be enforced in perpetuity. When unforeseen circumstances arise and certain terms of an easement need to be clarified or modified, MFT works with landowners to discuss if an amendment is appropriate. While amendments are possible in certain circumstances, an amendment is really a solution of last-resort and MFT prefers to explore all other alternatives first. Landowners considering requesting an amendment should contact their steward, who can explain the process and provide additional information on the associated expenses and timing.
How does MFT enforce the terms of its easements?
MFT monitors properties that have conservation easements on them and corresponds with landowners annually. In this way, stewards are able to learn about landowners’ plans for their properties and ask questions in order to ensure that plans are in keeping with the easement restrictions. If a landowner wishes to conduct an activity on their land that is not allowed by their conservation easement, stewards work with the landowner to come up with a practical alternatives that comply with the conservation easement.
When a violation does occur, whether by a landowner, neighbor, or other third party, MFT works with the landowner to find an appropriate resolution. If MFT and a landowner are not able to come to resolution together, MFT may need to pursue legal action in order to properly enforce the easement.