Joint Ag Committee debates state-funded conservation easementsWritten by Christy Martinez
The discussion was in response to the $6.6 million that was spent on conservation easements during the 2012 Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature.
Joint Ag Committee Co-Chairman Mark Semlek, who represents House District 01 in Crook and Weston counties, said the Management Council added language to the legislators’ interim topics for the Select Committee on Natural Resources to look into the topic and report back to the Joint Ag Committee at their fall meeting.
“I would suggest that, if you’re interested and concerned, you would attend the select committee’s meetings this summer when they have that discussion to provide some input as to whether you support moving forward with public money for conservation easements,” Semlek told members of the committee and the public.
Senator Eli Bebout from Senate District 26 in Fremont County mentioned concern over the amount of money the Legislature has been directing to conservation easements and the shift away from habitat concerns.
“I would hope the Ag Committee would be very involved in this, working together with the Select Committee, particularly if there’s legislation,” said Bebout.
“The major issue is the state’s funding of the conservation easements,” said Doug Cooper, a rancher from central Wyoming who testified before the Wyoming Senate on the issue in the last Budget Session. “That is the focus – whether it’s appropriate for the state to fund them.”
Cooper continued, saying the preservation of land has a cost that’s not visible.
“We can never see what might be built, or the other uses, and that’s a major problem with conservation easements – they’re in perpetuity, and we’re sitting back 1,000 years from when they might affect things,” he said.
Senator Gerald Geis from Senate District 20 in the Big Horn Basin said he thinks conservation easements should be set for 10 years, with the opportunity to review them and either carry on with them, or do away with them, after that period.
“I’m very concerned that we can know now what’s right to do in the future,” said Cooper. “I think the state should be very cautious and should not fund conservation easements without some overall goal. We have to have an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve, where we’re trying to achieve it and in an organized way.”
Senator Larry Hicks from Senate District 11 in Albany and Carbon counties expressed concern with the notion of a statewide “strategy” for conservation easements.
“Right now they’re a private transaction, but if the state comes up with a ‘strategy,’ doesn’t that escalate property values and put a focus on areas where it would say, ‘These are the rights we want to extinguish with the state’s strategy?’” said Hicks.
Cooper said that people are interested in conservation easements, and that they’re available and that people can get them through the private sector, but he said that, if the state is going to fund them, it should have an understanding of what it’s trying to achieve.
“The state needs something measurable and attainable. What is its goal? To have 20 percent or 50 percent of Wyoming in conservation easements?” he asked.
Sage grouse benefits
However, Wyoming Stock Growers Ag Land Trust Executive Director Pam Dewell argued that conservation easements are a way the state can invest in natural resources, including forage and sage grouse habitat.
“From an economic perspective, conservation easements are actually a good economic investment,” she said. “The influx of dollars this year was in response to $73 million in federal funding, the lions share of which was for the protection of sage grouse habitat. If the sage grouse gets listed, we’ll have a whole different economic picture in the state of Wyoming.”
Dewell said that the state has heard from the Fish and Wildlife Service that the agency believes shoring up and prohibiting or limiting development in sage grouse core areas is a reasonable – both biologically and economically – tool to protect the land and avoid listing.
Hicks said that the state has spent millions for sage grouse working groups as a tool to preclude listing.
“We’re spending money on sage grouse to preclude listing. One thing I’d like to look at is how much money the state has already invested in sage grouse, and see if that’s comparable to what we spent this last session,” he said.
“I think it’s a wise investment for the state of Wyoming to make,” said Dewell. “The committee might consider that these easements bring a huge amount of additional investments into the state, including federal dollars like the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program and private funders including foundations and individuals.”
Regarding the discussion on a state strategy, Dewell said, “Each conservation organization has its own priorities, and ours is the protection of ag land and what we consider to be a keystone species – the rancher. The Game and Fish is interested in wildlife habitat and game animals, while other organizations aim for biodiversity. The state has the opportunity to weigh in on its priorities and what it is that it wants to see.”
After work throughout the summer, the Joint Ag Committee will again discuss the topic of state-funded conservation easements at its September meeting in Hulett.