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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Easement Compliance--What is it and why should we care?


This fall marked the Conservancy’s fourth year since first acquiring conservation easements on Tejon Ranch. While our legal responsibilities as a land trust are not a flashy topic to most, they are fundamental to who we are and what we do.  So we thought we would share a little bit about what that work means to us at the Conservancy, and to all those who care about the Tejon Ranch property.

It turns out that a conservation easement is a complex thing- especially here on a private working ranch with a diversity of longstanding economic uses. A common metaphor we use around here is that owning property is akin to holding a bundle of sticks-- each one represents a different property right; the right to graze cattle, to develop and maintain agriculture or oil infrastructure, the right to build and maintain structures of any kind, the right to alter surface or subterranean water sources, the list goes on and on... A conservation easement is a custom crafted agreement between the property owner and a partnering land trust, where the former deeds (either as a donation or in a purchase agreement) some of these rights to the latter. Because different property rights and natural resources vary between areas, the negotiation between each owner and land trust is unique.
Looking into the heart of the Ranch, from Cordon Ridge on to Blue Ridge--the main spine of the Tehachapi Range. Hundreds of landscape images like this collected every year help us to observe both active management affects and differences in natural conditions over time.
The conservation easements on Tejon Ranch are very complicated due to the large size of the property, the presence of extraordinary natural resources, and the diverse ongoing land uses maintained by the property owner, the Tejon Ranch Company (the Company). Beginning in 2011, five easements were acquired by the Conservancy with funding from the State of California Wildlife Conservation Board. We are currently up to nine conservation easements on Tejon Ranch- each one drafted in partnership with state and federal agencies, the Conservancy board, and a team of lawyers from both the Company and the Conservancy. There are commonalities between easements, for example, restrictions on development of infrastructure (buildings, roads, ect.), deposition of trash materials, and intentional introduction of non-native plants and animals. But rules differ between easement areas depending on what is negotiated between parties. For example, in the historic Old Headquarters easement area of the Ranch where orchards are a major economic activity of the Company, maintenance and expansion of agriculture is allowable but only within a very specific spatial footprint.
Illegal public trash dumps like this one observed off of Bena Road in the White Wolf easement are documented every year. The Conservancy and the Ranch Company work collaboratively to clean up areas like this one.
In order to ensure that the ground rules for each conservation easement are being complied with, every fall season staff from the Conservancy officially monitors each easement area – currently a total of 108,877 acres. This lengthy effort requires very close review of the detailed baseline conditions that were documented at the time the deed of easement was recorded. From start to finish the process requires that hundreds of miles are driven, hundreds of photos are collected, and hundreds of hours are spent reviewing materials, assembling and analyzing data, and crafting official documentation for our legal records and those of the Tejon Ranch Company, the Wildlife Conservation Board, and other agencies.

Brief and intense pulses of rain in late winter 2014 precipitated two moderate landslides off of Cummings Mountain into the Old Headquarters easement. Annual documentation of disturbance events like landslides, fire, and extreme drought will help us understand how to help guide future land management efforts to promote conservation values. 
In short, the process of ensuring easement compliance requires a considerable effort. Why do we take it so seriously? Easement compliance monitoring provides an annual opportunity to observe how the land is being managed and potentially identify land uses that may be contrary to the enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem function on this extraordinary property. It also provides a regular opportunity for the Conservancy and the Company to closely evaluate our shared responsibilities in managing the natural resources of the Ranch, and how we can collaborate most effectively. You may have read in our fall 2014 newsletter that we recently joined the ranks of land trusts who have been accredited by the national Land Trust Alliance Accreditation Commission. The Conservancy proudly upholds their accreditation standards and practices to ensure the conservation values and thoughful stewardship of the land to which we were entrusted. Further, the conceptual framework for our conservation easements catalyzed the development of our Ranch-wide Management Plan (http://tejonconservancy.org/rwmp.htm), a science-based blueprint for the ecological management of the property that will enhance conservation values on Tejon Ranch over time. For those of you who have visited Tejon Ranch, we think you will agree that those values are worth protecting and ensuring for generations to come! 
This image was taken from our newly acquired PCT easement, looking down the spine of Blue Ridge at the future site of the rerouted Pacific Crest Trail. Although it will be some time until the trail is built, Conservancy staff will be monitoring the trail route into the future to ensure conservation values are maintained over time.