Stewards to raise funds for easements

By Trevor Kupfer, Dells Events

 The Stewards of the Dells of the Wisconsin River hope to become a fundraising entity for area landowners seeking a conservation easement.

The effort follows the success of Frank and Mariana Weinhold, who worked with Natural Heritage Land Trust to establish an easement on Louis' Bluff. At the Stewards Wednesday evening meeting, the group invited the land trust's executive director to discuss the easement process.

Jim Welsh, executive director of the land trust, said his group will decide whether it will pursue more Dells-area land to protect this fall, but it typically stays in or around Dane County. Though he didn't know the likelihood of protecting more of the Dells, Stewards President Debbie Kinder spent her Wednesday taking an Upper Dells boat tour with Welsh.

"I forgot what a beautiful place it is," Welsh said.

In case Natural Heritage Land Trust decides to consider the area, Welsh went through the details of obtaining easements.

Welsh's organization is one of more than 50 non-profit land trusts in the state that conserve land for the benefit of the public. The organizations preserve forest, farm, prairie and wetlands.

Conservation easements are voluntary and permanent agreements by the landowner and land trust, which can be personally tailored and sometimes provide compensation to the owner.

As part of the agreement, landowners give up some of their rights to the land such as building houses, businesses and roads or posting billboards.

Another part of the process involves an assessor visiting the land to determine its value. Welsh said, however, the effect of easements have been mixed as some believe its lack of development hinders its value, while others believe it strengthens the value.

"They're not making any more land," Welsh said, "So if you can buy a piece of land that can never be built on, it's worth something to some people."

After an assessor determines the value of the property, the state stewardship program will generally pay for half of the easement, Welsh said. If the landowner can't afford to donate the other half, Welsh said they turn to fundraising organizations to raise the money, which is what the Stewards would like to do for area residents.

"That's when we turn to community groups like yours to try to raise the money," Welsh said.

While Welsh wasn't sure of percentage of easements his group accepts, he did say it's quite selective. "We'll turn down projects if we feel there's not a very strong benefit to the community," Welsh said. "It might be a nice piece of property, but if it's just located in a rural area and there's no chance of the public enjoying the scenic beauty of it or no great wildlife habitat, then we might turn that down."

Welsh cited eight steps in the process including these:

* Landowners educate themselves about conservation easements. He cited the Web site for Land Trust Alliance,, as a good staring point.

* Landowners identify their conservation goals.

* Landowners seek experts such as a tax advisor, lawyer and natural resource management specialist.

* Landowners partner with a unit of government or land trust to hold and regulate the easement.

* Landowners recognize if they need compensation or if they'll make a donation.

* Land trust or government identifies the rights and restrictions the landowner must meet to accomplish the conservation goals.

* An assessor determines the value of the easement, and landowners will have to continue to pay property taxes.

* Landowner identifies other costs involved such as enforcement and legal fees.

Cities and local units of government cannot prevent an easement, Welsh said, but his organization doesn't like to set them up when a legal battle would likely occur.

Since easements permanently restrict development in the future, some landowners have tried to fight the restrictions of an easement. The language is attached to the deed and those fights don't typically get very far, Welsh said.

"Generally it's upheld by the court because it's very clear what the goals were, and it was written down when the landowner bought the property," Welsh said.

The Stewards don't have any particular pieces of land in mind for easements, but stewards Dave Simerson and Bill Federbusch, who own land at Riverside and Great Northern Railway and Devil's Elbow, respectively, have entertained the idea of seeking an easement for their land.

In other action, the group discussed the installation of the informational buoys on the river. DNR Game Warden Mike Green came to the meeting and said they will likely be on the river in spring.

Each buoy will cost about $150, Green said, and he's currently looking for funding from the DNR or Alliant Energy. The Stewards then approved a motion to set aside $300 of seed money in case they need it to fund the buoys.