A conservation easement is a permanent deed restriction, held by a nonprofit land trust such as the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, put into place to help preserve and protect natural spaces. These deed restrictions dictate which land uses a landowner may or may not undertake on the portion of the easement. A conservation easement might make restrictions on development, construction, timber harvests or agricultural activities for a parcel of land. The site-specific easement, which is negotiated with a landowner’s input, would spell out which restrictions apply and to what extent outlined activities or land uses are allowed or prohibited.
The details of permissible land uses vary from easement to easement and depend on what the landowner wishes to accomplish with the land or what the land trust requires. Easement programs have protected millions of acres nationwide, and they are often key tools in conserving important ecological sites, family estates, historical farms and other important properties that maintain rural character or otherwise preserve our natural heritage.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy holds one conservation easement along the Lake Chautauqua shoreline at the Lake Chautauqua Lutheran Center. The CWC actively seeks more conservation easements to preserve and protect more crucial lands throughout Chautauqua County’s watersheds.
While conservation easements can be difficult to fund, there are some state-funded programs on the horizon that will make more conservation easements possible in western New York. To reduce agricultural runoff, protect sensitive stream corridors and wetlands, and to maintain or enhance water quality in Chautauqua Lake, the NYS Division of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM) initiated a program that would purchase the development rights of these corridors from farms in the Chautauqua Lake watershed. Using conservation easements, the program would collaborate with the Chautauqua County Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) and land trusts to place legal protections around these streams and wetlands. The easements would restrict land use and install vegetative buffers. In exchange, the landowner would get paid for the value of the land they are giving up, and many landowners would qualify for tax relief as well.
With a conservation easement, the landowner still owns their land, and they can still use the land for many purposes such as hunting, maple syrup production, timber harvests and recreation. In exchange, these vital habitats are protected in perpetuity, and the NYS program provides funding for plantings, rockwork, and stewardship endowments for long term management.