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Published March 31, 2014, 09:15 AM

Conservancy group promotes sustainable ag, habitat preservation

The Nature Conservancy sees itself as a “quiet” conservation group, or at least lesser-known than the game species-specific groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

RAPID CITY, S.D. — The Nature Conservancy sees itself as a “quiet” conservation group, or at least lesser-known than the game species-specific groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever.

Started in 1951 in the Arlington, Va., area, “The Conservancy” now involves 35 countries. It has more than 1 million members and claims to have protected 119 million acres worldwide. It is said to be the largest environmental nonprofit organization by assets and revenue in the Americas.

The group came to the region in the late 1950s and now operates a three-state chapter based in Minneapolis, covering Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. The organization made a leap in this region in the 1970s when Katharine Ordway, a 3M heiress, gave $50 million to acquire a named Ordway Preserve in the Great Plains states. That would lead to preserves near Willmar, Minn., Aberdeen, S.D., and Washburn, N.D.

The organization currently owns 6,261 acres in Minnesota and holds conservation easements on an additional 2,186 acres. It claims to have helped protect a total of 675,913 Minnesota acres. In South Dakota, it owns 17,317 acres, holds conservation easements on an additional 35,820 acres, and protects a total of 70,228 acres. In North Dakota, it owns 16,176 acres, protects 37,957 and holds no conservation easements.

Bob Paulson, director of the Western Dakotas Program, based in Rapid City, and his program coordinator, Corissa Krueger, recently sat down for an interview and described the group’s efforts.

“We’re not a ‘retail’ outfit. We don’t do banquets,” Paulson says. “We don’t try to grow our membership past a certain point, basically. We work quietly. I distinguish between ‘conservation’ groups and ‘environmental’ groups. In my mind, environmental groups file lawsuits — Sierra Club and others are examples. We don’t litigate. We don’t have the notoriety or public presence.”

Still, the organization claims 20,500 members in Minnesota, 1,100 members in North Dakota and 1,500 members in South Dakota. These are people who make an annual contribution, and there is no minimum amount required.

“We’re focused on native habitats, natural areas,” Paulson says.

The motto through the 1990s was saving the “last great places, the best of what’s left in the 63 eco-regions across the lower 48 states.”

Scientific approach

The Conservancy touts a scientific approach, Paulson and Krueger say. It developed “heritage databases” in all 50 states, and internationally, that inventory species and habitats of interest. They allow inventories to cross political boundaries. A rare birch stand in North Dakota might get a lower priority if the species is in abundance next door in Minnesota.

“We can get as excited about a mushroom and the context it grows within as we can about a bug or a mammal. We’re focused on native habitats,” Paulson says.

The tri-state chapter has four full-time scientists, including prairie, forest and freshwater ecologists. The scientists advise the organization on what to acquire and how to manage it.

From the start, The Conservancy was concerned with the loss of natural tallgrass prairie in the region, which Paulson notes is down to 1 percent or less of its initial area.

“That’s the deep-soil areas — prime corn fields now, prime farmland in the eastern Dakotas,” Paulson says. “Most of what’s left is on the rocky ridges or on the ‘beach’ fronts of historic Lake Agassiz, on both sides and elsewhere.”

Gifts, acquisitions

Thirty years ago, the group focused on smaller purchases, where a target plant or animal was living. In the late 1970s and 1980s, that focus shifted to larger parcels. Group leaders determined it was easier to manage an interior piece of land if there was a larger piece with a border edge.

The organization buys land or accepts it as a gift and manages it according to its scientific preserve attributes, but attempts to offer grazing leases with conditions — typically rotational grazing.

Among other things, The Conservancy is noted for including prescribed fire as a management tool.

“It’s easier to run fire on a bigger piece of ground because we can keep the fire on our property,” Paulson says. “Everything in the Dakotas originally was a grazed ecosystem — it evolved with grazing. It evolved with fire. So those processes need to continue on some level. If there aren’t bison there to graze, then cattle are a good approximate substitute for it.”

The Conservancy owns two kinds of property — conservation lands and trade lands.

Paulson calls land donations a “blessing when they come in,” but that’s fairly rare. In 18

years, only five land donations have been made that cover part or all of a project in South Dakota. Two of the five donations were trade lands that were immediately sold.

“Right now, we have a 21-acre lot donated to us next to a subdivision in a ranchette development that does not have conservation value,” Paulson says. “So we will sell it, and put that cash into areas we’re interested in. People know when they donate it whether it’s something we’re going to keep or sell.”

The group is considered more nimble than other agencies or partners and sometimes operates as a bridge financing agency.

“We can move quickly,” Krueger says. “If there is an acquisition opportunity, we can sometimes jump on that and hold it until another agency wants to step in and organize themselves to do that.”

The Conservancy recently hired a staffer to work out of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife office to get more easements.

“There’s a huge number of people who wanted to sign up for conservation easements but they didn’t have the staff to work with those people fast enough,” Krueger says. “So The Conservancy funded a position to be able to make that work and move faster. Where there are possibilities, opportunities, we partner as readily as we can, and we’re flexible.”

Not always loved

The Conservancy isn’t universally loved, but criticisms are few and often not specific. Some environmental groups have criticized The Conservancy for permitting oil drilling, timbering and mining on donated land. Some animal rights groups have criticized it for allowing hunting on some of its preserves.

On the other side of the coin, agricultural groups sometimes say they don’t like perpetual easements.

Paulson says the perpetual easement tool is central to the group’s mission.

“To qualify with the IRS stipulations, easements have to be perpetual,” Paulson says. “Otherwise there is no tax deduction allowed.”

About two-thirds of The Conservancy’s easements are appraised for IRS charitable contributions, but a third are not — either because the donor doesn’t want the appraisal, or can’t afford an appraisal payment.

Out of 28 easements in eastern South Dakota, The Conservancy had to pay for only two. “The rest of the easements, people want to keep the land the way they put it together over the years,” Paulson says. “Maybe there’s nobody to take it over — the kids have no interest in it, or varying interest.”

North Dakota is the only state that has limits on perpetual easements. The state constitution doesn’t allow them.

“We have to get approval of the township board, the county commissioners and the governor to do any project we do in North Dakota,” Paulson says. The North Dakota Farm Bureau, for example, is strongly against perpetual easements.

South Dakota state Rep. Betty Olson, R-Reva, was a prime sponsor of HB 1083 in the South Dakota Legislature this year. Her bill would have limited easements to 99 years. She says easements are more permanent than zoning laws. The bill passed the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee 8 to 5 and was defeated 17 to 51 on the House floor. It was the fourth time the bill has come up in the past seven years.

Forever, everlasting

Olson admits that opponents successfully argued the bill would tie their hands for conserving lands.

“I wasn’t concerned at all about tying their hands; I was concerned about tying the hands of the people who own the place,” Olson says, vowing she’ll attempt the bill again.

Former South Dakota state Rep. David Sigsdestad, D-Pierpont, testified in favor of the bill, saying it raises his ire to call an easement perpetual.

“I realize anyone with land and property can do whatever they want to do with it, but only while they’re living,” says Sigsdestad, a farmer. “I looked up ‘forever’ and it’s ‘everlasting.’ That’s a long time.”

Sigdestad says property valuations can’t account for the impact of perpetual easements. “Tell me how anything can be divided by perpetuity,” he says. “It’s nothing.”

Paulson notes that numerous others argued against the bill, including the Department of Transportation, because it would void wetland mitigation work.

“There are a whole host of reasons you need perpetual easements as one option for some people,” Paulson says. “We don’t solicit them; people come to us.”

Contrary to what some critics might say, The Conservancy pays taxes on its owned land. The land is typically taxed at the agricultural rate because it’s undeveloped property.

“And we don’t pay over appraised value for land, because we’re nonprofit, and we have to be stewards of the funds,” Paulson says. “We lose some incredible properties at auction.” The organization can’t be accused of driving up neighbors’ tax bases.

Prairie dog tales

Paulson says The Conservancy works to maintain any flora or fauna that occurs in the region naturally.

“We work very hard to try to keep things off the endangered species list,” Paulson says. For example, the black-footed ferret is on the endangered list, but The Conservancy and others are trying to grow its population.

The biggest hitch is that ferrets need prairie dog towns to survive. Prairie dogs have an impact on grass and most ranchers don’t want them around. But some landowners do, because they add “variety to the mosaic of the landscape,” Paulson says. Over 100 animal species depend on prairie dog towns — salamanders, snakes and birds among them.

The Conservancy has prairie dogs on three owned properties and on five or six ranches in the Badlands area. Paulson notes that the group will take steps — including poisoning and shooting — to keep prairie dogs from spilling onto adjoining land, whenever there is a complaint.

Emphasis on education

Paulson says the group brings in 110 seventh-graders every fall to its Whitney Preserve site in the southern Black Hills. The site features “Bev’s Bunkhouse,” a building built largely from donations by Paulson’s father, Lloyd. It used to house visiting volunteers, researchers and educators.

South Dakota State University brings out range science students in the summer to evaluate the property or complete projects that would take more paperwork on federal lands. AmeriCorps participants have come to help with fencing or trails.

Some properties are open to hunting with permission, but it is prohibited on others for safety and other reasons.

“We conserve properties,” Paulson says. “We don’t preserve properties. Our focus is not to build a fence around something to look in. We see humans as a big part of the landscape. Making a living off these properties — leasing them to neighbors for grazing and that sort of thing, getting school groups out there — all that’s important.”