Pierre, South Dakota - After fervent
arguments from farmers and ranchers on both sides of the issue, the
[South Dakota] House Agriculture Committee voted 9-4
Thursday for a bill that would slap a limit on future conservation
Conservation easements place certain restrictions on the use of land,
typically to preserve it as open space and preclude business and
residential development. Landowners who agree to easements, which are
offered by the state and federal governments as well as conservation
groups, may either sell or donate some rights to use the land.
Easement rights may be donated or sold by
HB1194 specifies that conservation easements in South Dakota,
with the exception of wetlands easements, may not be longer than 30
years. It would apply to easements granted after July 1 .
Existing easements would not be affected.
Rep. Jim Lintz, R-Hermosa, said he offered the measure because
many people are now accepting perpetual conservation easements. He
argued that landowners should not be able to make deals that will
forever control the use of property, precluding all future owners from
certain uses of the land.
"It's the right to take away land rights from the next
generation," Lintz said.
Many people who give away those future property rights may not
fully understand what they're doing, he said.
"We're trying to keep people on the land, and we're trying to
keep land open and free," Lintz said. "We're trying
to protect individuals from getting into bad agreements."
Opponents said the Legislature would be taking away a property right
if it limits the length of conservation easements that can prevent
agricultural land from being plowed, trees from being cut and wildlife
from being disturbed. They also said tax breaks could be jeopardized.
Gene Williams, who ranches near Interior, [South Dakota], told the
committee that income from conservation easements can be
[what, Exactly, does "can be" mean???] important
to farmers and ranchers. Those payments can make the
difference between selling out in tough times or staying in business,
Landowners should be allowed to decide if they want their property
protected forever from development, Williams said. Those lands often
become more valuable, he said, giving the example of New York's
"Conservation easements create what I would call islands
of desirability among seas of commonality,"
Williams said. "They're an island of wildlife habitat and
grasslands in a sea of corn and beans."
Conservation easements are beneficial to the environment and wildlife,
according to Mike Held, administrative director of the state
Farm Bureau. But he said HB1194 should be passed
because perpetual easements are a bad idea.
HB1194 now goes to the House floor.
Opposition also came from David Gillen of White Lake, president of the
South Dakota Corngrowers Association. Those who purchase or inherit
land should not be saddled with permanent restrictions on use of the
property, he said.
"We're borrowing from the future to satisfy the present,"
Gillen warned. "We're packing on baggage for our kids."
Another opponent, Mark Hollenbeck of the state Stockgrowers
Association, said conservation easements have been obtained on about 3
percent of the private land in South Dakota. At the current
rate of easements, there will be no unencumbered private property in
the state in 800-900 years, he said.
"If we allow this to continue, sooner or later we're not
going to have any land," Hollenbeck said, adding that
future generations should not be bound by decisions made today.
"I don't believe you own the land when you're in your
grave," he said.
Bill Fraas of Hot Springs said he has a conservation easement with the
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on 450 acres of land. He said his
children approved of the easement because it will ensure that the land
stays wild and is never developed.
Another incentive for the easement was a six-year break on
federal income taxes, Fraas said in support of the bill.
Also supporting HB1194, which now goes to the House floor, Wendi
Rinehart of rural Highmore said the conservation easement on her
family's ranch allows them to continue with their cattle operation. A
large chunk of their property will remain as native prairie, she said.
"It is our land, which makes it our choice. This is a voluntary
program," Rinehart said. "Where is the damage in saving
native, virgin prairie?"
Rinehart said the bill is an affront to property rights. She said some
of those who want to limit conservation easements do not like
"Stewarding the land is what these easements are all about,"
Looking around the packed meeting room, Rep. Larry Rhoden, R-Union
Center, conceded that the issue is emotional. Before voting for the
bill, he said it is wrong for present landowners to make decisions
that can never be reversed by future landowners.
"What rights will the future property owner have if this trend
continues?" he asked.
Rep. Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall, who voted against the bill, said he
is troubled by perpetual easements but does not feel he has a good
enough grasp of the issue to support 30-year limits.
"I want to make sure when I take this giant step ... that my feet
come down on solid ground," he said.
Copyright 2004, The Rapid City Journal.