Notes from the Field: Stewarding Conservation Easements

As a student and traveler, I’ve lived in my fair share of stunning locales: spending time in Kenya, Madagascar, England, and most of New York. In each of these places I was struck by the role the landscape played in my experience. In Eastern Kenya, it was something to be struggled against; forests were cut back for crop land, businesses, and roads. In Central and Southern Madagascar, the jungle was lush and resource-rich; it was hunted, harvested, and burned for agriculture. In England, we didn’t have “wild-spaces” so much as we had “green-spaces;” over hundreds of years the island’s landscape had been tamed and cultivated. In rural New York, the landscape faded out: it sat below the cows, behind the corn, and under the sky.

My move to Vermont was predicated on ideas of its so-called “working landscape:” a landscape that was an integrated, utilized, un-wasted, yet protected, space. This effect showcases the steady work of Vermont’s many land trusts. They protect working, natural, and recreational lands in perpetuity using an effective legal mechanism, Conservation Easements

An easement is a legal agreement between landowners and a land trust that preserves and restores valuable attributes of the property by restricting specific activities. Often, this is done by purchasing the development rights on the land. While my work at the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board focuses on conservation, easements have many forms. Historic Easements preserve the façade, interior, or surroundings of an historic structure while Agricultural Easements, aptly named, preserve agricultural land.

As a conservation steward, my job is to  monitor the property and ensure current management complies with the terms in the easement.  Each day during the summer, I hike through parks, state forests, and nature preserves to determine whether any uses or activities violate our agreements. It’s rare to find a violation, but if we do, we work closely with the landowner to identify management strategies such as boundary marking, improved signage, or enforcement, thereby protecting the values for which the property was conserved. Our goal is to foster the same care that we have for the land in each community we work with. This requires coordination with landowners and partner organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Vermont Land Trust, Vermont Fish & Wildlife, and many others.

In the context of conservation easements, everything happens for a reason. Each plot of land that VHCB helps protect serves a unique function. Some harbor threatened flora or fauna; some grant grand vistas or display delicate ecosystems; and some provide recreational opportunities such as swimming holes or town parks. The conservation easement protects the land’s character, and our boots-on-the-ground summer field visits maintain the integrity of our legal interest.

Benjamin Canellys has an MSc in Primate Conservation from Oxford-Brookes University. He lived and worked in England, Kenya, and Madagascar with yellow baboons, colobus, and sifakas before moving back to America to attend Vermont Law School.

A lunch spot vista during a monitoring field visit.