The Maine Woods Coalition Conservation Easement Policy
Are Conservation Easements the Answer?
The Maine Woods Region is experiencing a tremendous amount of development pressure in certain locations (such as Moosehead Lake). Corporate owners of large tracts of undeveloped land are exploring the potential windfall of liquidating their lesser-valued holdings in response this development pressure. Some groups have forwarded large-scale conservation easements as the answer to this problem.
On the surface, these easements – which generally allow for the purchase from the owner of development rights on the property for perpetuity – seem to be what we all want. If wood could still be harvested following good forestry practices, and if the land (even if sold) could not be developed, and if the public would continue to be allowed to cross the land as they have for centuries, then isn't this what we want? The Steering Committee for the Maine Woods Coalition at their April 5, 2001 meeting raised several concerns about these easements, some of which are listed here. The Steering Committee will continue to seek answers to these questions, and we urge you to think critically about these issues.
- If conservation easements remove development rights from the land (for a cost), the land's value is primarily as marketable woodland. What happens if after this occurs, forestry laws change, decreasing or eliminating the potential value of that wood? Who would be the likely purchaser of land that cannot be developed and cannot be harvested for wood products?
- If large-scale conservation easements are put into place, will the value of this undeveloped land decrease on the county's tax rolls? If this occurred, how would this loss of assessed value be made up?
- Do these easements allow for ALL of the current uses of the lands in question: wood harvesting, public access, non-motorized and motorized recreation, hunting, fishing & trapping?
- Is the development pressure seen in the organized townships of the region also present in the remote unorganized territories? Are current regulatory agencies and Maine laws sufficient to prevent significant development of this region?
- How is the woods industry – a significant portion of our regional economy – impacted by these easements? Will these stabilize or destabilize the woods industry?
STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLE:
The Maine Woods Coalition believes that Conservation Easements that limit or eliminate the possibility of future development must be approached in a cautious manner. Two guiding tenets of the Coalition regarding easements are:
- Protecting the use of land for traditional Maine access and recreation; and,
- Promoting, protecting, and preserving private property rights, including responsible future development.
Actions that interfere, or have the capacity to do so, with these rights and uses must be regarded with healthy skepticism and be shown to have significant public benefit. Easements that seek public monies to fund all or part of them must be reviewed carefully to ensure the public interest is properly served and that the easement does not jeopardize that public interest. In keeping with this philosophy, the Coalition has developed several evaluation tools to guide it in assessing the benefits or detriments of proposed Conservation Easements.
EVALUATION OF CONSERVATION EASEMENTS:
The following considerations may be used by the Maine Woods Coalition to evaluate and possibly endorse proposed Conservation Easements, if public funds are required to finance them, either all or in part:
- Representatives of the general public residing within or in proximity to the area affected by the easement, are directly involved in the negotiation of the easement and the negotiations are “transparent”.
- The public, through a government entity, will hold the easement.
- There is a distinct and demonstrable development pressure or the risk of loss of traditional uses on the affected land that is deemed to be counter to the general public interest.
- The easement protects traditional uses of the area by citizens, which include, but are not limited to, hunting, fishing, camping, boating, hiking, trapping, forestry, etc. Limitation on forest management practices may be allowable if they are based on sound forestry practices and sustainable yields.
- The easement provides a direct and defined public benefit.
- There may be some opportunity for limited development, if such development is generally consistent with the existing character of the easement area, is of low impact on resources, and is compatible with other existing development.
- The easement protects or enhances existing property rights of non-parties directly affected by creation of the easement.
- The easement contains no provision directing or facilitating transfer of the public rights acquired thereunder to any agency or entity for the purpose of creating or augmenting a future or existing national park. It is recognized that the eminent domain authority of a government entity is exempted from this consideration.
- The easement is granted for a period of up to 75 years, but the easement contains no provisions limiting the right of all parties to the easement to voluntarily modify or revoke its provisions at a future date.
- The Coalition may consider other factors deemed to be in the interest of the Coalition membership.