KINGMAN COUNTY – On boyhood campouts, the property nourished Bill Johnson’s body. Fish for breakfast were caught in a crystal-clear stream. Sweet-tasting spring water gushed from the ground.
For decades since, the 240 acres has nourished Johnson’s soul.
“I can have a bad week at work, then go out there and all of a sudden I’ve been rejuvenated,” Johnson said of the land his father bought before he was born. “I can’t remember when that place hasn’t been deep in my heart.”
Now Johnson, 62, worries what will happen after he dies to the towering cottonwoods where wintering eagles roost, the spring-fed beaver ponds where waterfowl flock and the grasslands where the deer he loves to hunt thrive.
“I’ve always felt like it’s been my job to take care of it,” Johnson said. “I don’t want somebody to go in there and develop things, or plowing everything up.”
Protected for perpetuity
Jim Hoy and Jane Koger once had similar fears for the Flint Hills ranches that have been in their families for at least five generations.
That changed after they placed those prairies under protective conservation easements, which are restrictions placed on deeds to prohibit most development for perpetuity.
“Now it’s protected … no construction, no oil development, no farming,” said Hoy of his land near Cassoday. “We think the Flint Hills are as sacred of a landscape as we’ll ever have in Kansas.”
Koger remembers the relief she felt the day she signed her easement several years ago.
“Talk about resting in peace,” Koger said. “Now I know I’ll really be resting in peace.”
For about the past 20 years several conservation organizations have been helping Kansas landowners enroll lands in protective conservation easements.
Most ensure the land will stay in its current natural state, and could be protected from urban sprawl, utility lines, new roads, mining, farming and wind farms.
Once enrolled, the restrictions stay with the deed forever, and are administered by the conservation group helping to enroll the easement.
As well as peace of mind, landowners sometimes receive financial compensation for their efforts.
Rob Manes, Nature Conservancy of Kansas director, said conservation easements largely began in the eastern U.S. several decades ago, as farmers in places like Pennsylvania and Maryland wanted to ensure their family farms never grew shopping malls or houses.
Manes said helping set up easements in Kansas ranch country works well with the group’s goal of protecting critical habitats, like remnants of the tallgrass prairie.
He said fear of the grasslands being plowed, dissected by roads, or becoming a patchwork of wind farms has helped propel a growing number of landowners to check into easements.
Manes said currently there are about 120,000 acres under easement in Kansas, and that amount is steadily growing.
Koger thinks even more landowners might participate if they realized that they still retain full ownership and how little conservation easements affect the current use of their land. Also, public access to such lands is not required.
“Basically I sold only the development rights, so I can’t build a golf course,” Koger said, a bit of wry sarcasm in her voice. “I can’t plow it. I can’t do oil or gas wells. But it can still be grazed, and nobody is telling me how to graze it. I can do recreational hunting or fee hunting. I can do tourism, all just like before.”
Hoy noted that most easements are largely tailored to the owner’s desires.
Not all of their property needs to be enrolled. Hoy and Koger didn’t include small parcels in case some buildings, or houses, need to be constructed.
Compensation for conservation
Financial compensation packages are available to qualified landowners. Most attempt to pay all or part of the devaluation of the land’s value after the easement is put in place.
For instance, if land is valued at $1,800 an acre and the appraised price drops to $1,500 per acre after development rights are removed, the landowner could receive up to about $300 per acre.
Often the money comes from federal programs designed to protect grasslands, wetlands and ranchlands, said Mike Beam of Ranchland Trust of Kansas, a nonprofit group formed by the Kansas Livestock Association.
Private groups, like energy companies, sometimes contribute to easement costs.
Near Fort Riley, the Army has paid the easement costs on some enrolled grasslands that border the military land.
Jerry Jost, Kansas Land Trust, said the military wants to ensure that development along its borders doesn’t impede training missions.
Much of those protected easements, Jost said, are also prime areas of tallgrass prairie.
Manes said some landowners pursue easements, then donate the payment monies to one of the conservation groups for tax breaks. Some of those tax breaks, he said, can be substantial to the right people.
Some donate the property after their death.
Manes said the Nature Conservancy sometimes sets up the requested easements and sells the donated land. The income is used to monitor and maintain the easements on that and other land. They’ve also set up the easements, then turned donated lands over to an agency like the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism for future management.
Jordan Martincich, Pheasants Forever development officer, helps landowners set up conservation easements.
Martincich said a landowner in Russell County donated 1,700 acres to Pheasants Forever upon his death.
Another owner set up easements then donated 640 acres in Gray County.
Martincich said both landowners approved the group’s plans to keep the lands for educational and recreational purposes.
“The real beauty is that the landowners know their land is going to stay undeveloped forever,” Beam said. “Perpetuity is a very long time.” Manes also added that landowners make no commitments until the research process is done. “At the end of the day,” he said. “they can either sign up for the easement or not. It’s 100 percent up to them until the end.”
Koger also sees the formation of easements as a way of gaining allies should some sort of large development threaten their land. “They won’t just be taking on Jane,” she said. “They’ll also be taking on the Nature Conservancy and that can make a big difference.”
But the system isn’t perfect.
Beam said funding always seems to be lacking to accommodate all who qualify. Kansas is also one of few states not to offer some funding to help with the process, such as if matching funds are required.
Also this year, a bill was submitted in the Kansas Legislature to put a 30-year limitation on easements. “That would absolutely kill the conservation easement program,” Manes said, adding that the bill was sponsored by conservatives fearing too much government control on private lands. The bill quickly died.
In rare cases, the government could enact eminent domain to override an easement, though it’s never happened in Kansas.
Johnson’s not sure how he’ll protect his land in Kingman County, though he now knows there are ways.
“I’ll make sure it goes some place so it will always stay the way it is,” Johnson said. “I’ll stick to it until I find the right way. I have to make sure it’s protected.”