A Note on the Pilgrim River Watershed Project and Conservation Easements

The Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited and a coalition of local partners are working together to protect a pristine part of the Pilgrim River Valley, only a few miles from Houghton. The goal is to purchase a conservation from a private landowner to ensure that the land is managed for sustainable forestry, for healthy water quality and habitats, and to secure permanent public access for a variety of recreational uses that are compatible with forestry and protection of natural resources.

Purchasing an easement is much more cost-effective than outright purchase of the land, with the public gaining significant benefits while the property remains privately owned. An arrangement like this is sometimes called a "purchase of development rights". But the Pilgrim River Watershed Project would accomplish much more. The easement would protect the health of the watershed, preserve scenic viewsheds, and allow public access for traditional uses such as hunting, fishing, and trapping, expanded to include year-round public access for non-motorized uses that are compatible with forestry and natural resource protection. With opportunities to be gained by fishermen, hunters, hikers, bird watchers, berry pickers, mushroom gatherers, mountain bikers, back country skiers and snowshoers, this project has drawn wide support from individuals and organizations interested in its goals. The landowner and the project partners want to foster community use with features such as trails, wayfinding signs, improved parking areas, recreational and educational programs, and the continuation of stewardship activities.

The land in the project area is privately owned and currently enrolled in Michigan's Commercial Forest (CF) program and timber harvests on this land have been supporting the local forest products economy. The CF program requires the landowner to allow seasonal public access for legal hunting, fishing and trapping, but the landowner does not have to allow public access for other activities. A landowner can withdraw its forestland from CF enrollment at any time, and land use conversion is then possible, with all public access rights terminated. This is a primary concern for the community partners pursuing conservation of these lands.

The project aims to create a winning outcome for the landowner, the watershed, and the community. If accomplished, the landowner would be selling development and broad public access rights, and also agree to use and manage the land in a way that protects the watershed and natural resources. The land would remain in private ownership and on the property tax roles, and the owner would still retain the rights to sell, lease, or will its land. The land can continue supporting the local forest products economy and can remain enrolled in the CF program. The community would gain expanded and permanent public access for recreation and traditional uses, a healthy watershed and natural habitats.

General Background on Conservation Easements

Conservation Easement Highlights

  • A conservation easement is a land use and natural resource protection agreement whereby specific usage rights are transferred by a willing landowner to a qualified easement holder.
  • An easement is a voluntary committment. No one can force a landowner into a conservation easement.
  • Conservation easements usually are donated to qualified charitable organizations such as land trusts, but if an easement is purchased, the purchase price is determined by professional fair-market appraisal.
  • The easement becomes legally binding as part of the land title
  • The easement runs "...in perpetuity with the land." It never expires.
  • The easement restricts real estate development and other uses as defined and mutually agreed upon by the landowner and easement holder.
  • The land remains the private property of the landowner.
  • An easement does not necessarily require public access but public uses can be defined and established as part of the agreement.
  • Land remains on property tax roles.

How does a conservation easement benefit the community?

Conserved lands maintain scenic character as a visual contrast to development, protect habitat for plants and animals, and provide opportunities for low impact recreation, outdoor education, and interaction with nature. Conservation easements contribute to the common good by protectin the land and water that help provide the community with a high quality of life.

What types of land can be protected through conservation easements?

Conservation easements can be used to protect a variety of lands, but priority is usually given to relatively undisturbed natural habitats, the shoreline of lakes, rivers and streams, and scenic landscapes, particularly those with local significancs.

Can a conservation easement be forced on an unwilling landowner?