The Forest Legacy Program is a cooperative effort between states and the USDA Forest Service which identifies environmentally important forest areas and helps keep them from being converted into non-forest uses. The most utilized tool employed for this process is the determination and delineation of conservation easements. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that limits use, in perpetuity, in order to protect its conservation values. It allows the landowners to continue to own and use the land, pass it on to heirs or sell it, but the terms of the easement limiting use does not change. Easements are recorded locally so as to inform future landowners about responsibilities of ownership when obtaining titles.
The federal government subsidizes up to 75% of project costs with 25% coming from the state, private or local sources.This program aims to protect forest value for traditional, aesthetic, wildlife, riparian, cultural and recreational uses. Although participation in the legacy program isn’t mandatory 49 states and 4 territories are currently involved. In the northeastern region over 1.5 million acres on 436 tracts are protected throughout 20 states. Nationally 2.3 million acres have been protected on 723 tracts of land respectively.
Other protection tools employed by the Forest Legacy Program in addition to conservation easements include; full-fee purchases, voluntary deed restrictions, covenants and other agreements. Landowners may be offered fair market value for their interest in environmentally valuable land, as appraised according to Federal Appraisal Standards. Land eligible for purchase from owners must have environmental value presently or potentially threatened by conversion into non-forest uses and be located on forest legacy land.
When conservation easements are used all parties benefit because while land remains privately owned forest stewardship plans or multi-resource management plans are prepared and implemented. Land trusts, communities, state and federal agencies, private landowners, forestry and conservation organizations are all actively involved playing their individual roles.
The federal role is to provide overall guidance, oversight and grants to state agencies. The state solicits, reviews and prioritizes applications for tracts of lands or forest areas, prepares grant applications and submits them for funding, works with landowners and monitors easement properties. The state will also assist with the acquisition of lands by negotiating conservation easement language, surveying, title work, appraisals, closing and records maintenance. A state forest stewardship coordinating committee (SFSCC) is formed, whose responsibilities include coordinating with the state lead agency, evaluating eligibility requirements, identifying qualifying tracts of land and prioritizing tracts for enrollment. The participating conservation organization participates on the SFSCC, seeks out landowners and cultivates interest, brokers land acquisitions and monitors tracts through agreements with governmental agencies. The landowner conveys interest, helps prepare stewardship or multi-resource management plans and manages the land to achieve conservation goals. Monitoring and enforcement of conservation easements and agreements fall to the state for collection of baseline information and monitoring of legacy tracts upon admission to the program while the conservation easement holder is responsible for enforcement.
To find out if land on your property is eligible for the legacy program contact the state forestry agency where your land is located. State forester information can be found at www.stateforesters.org. And for more information about Forest Legacy Program itself visit http://www.na.fs.fed.us/legacy.