Officials with the Georgia Conservancy's Land Conservation Program are concerned that many Georgia landowners aren't aware of the range of conservancy programs that are available to them.
According to officials with the organization, working farm land, land along swamps, marshes, or streams, and pastures and grasslands may be eligible for one of the protection programs sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture. Those programs include the Farm and Ranch Protection Program, the Wetland Reserve Program, and the Grassland Reserve Program.
Referred to as conservation easements, The USDA will make a cash payment to the landowner, based on acreage, for their agreement to permanently protect their qualifying land from certain uses such as subdivision development, strip mining, or aggressive timber cutting practices.
While these uses are restricted, others may not be. The owners continue to own their land and may hunt, fish, hike, and continue certain farming and timber practices.
Founded in 1967, the Georgia Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that collaborates, advocates and educates to protect Georgia's natural environment. Launched in early 2011, the organization's Land Conservation Program has worked with hundreds of landowners from around the state to find the best incentives to protect their land.
According to the organization, one Wetland Reserve Program recipient from south Georgia was paid to protect almost 1,500 acres of wetlands on their family farm.
"I just couldn't believe it when they told me I might be eligible, because I had never heard of these programs, and it sounded a little too good to be true," the landowner said. "The Georgia Conservancy was right, and my land did qualify. The U.S. government sent me a check for more money that I have ever seen, and it has allowed me to hold onto this farm that my great grandfather started."
Local forestry consultant and real estate appraiser James B. Lanier, Jr. ("Jimmy") is a certified appraiser for these types of easements - a certification referred to as a "yellow book" appraiser in the industry. Lanier said demand by developers for land tends to drive the desire to place land into conservation.
"When the demand for land is high, it drives up the price of the land," Lanier said. "What the government will pay for a conservation easement is based on the worth of the land at that time. Five or six years ago when the price of land was at its peak, you could get just about what a developer would pay for it in a conservation easement, and still have some use and retain ownership of the land."
Lanier said many people were motivated by that, and a lot of land was placed into easements, particularly on the coast. However, that motivation seems to have waned quite a bit.
"You have to remember that most of these easements are put in place for generations to come, if not permanently," he said. "Right now with real estate prices at a low point, people feel like there is most likely, a significant upswing to be seen in the future, and really don't want to tie up their land right now - much less so than five or six years ago. However, there are plenty of people that these programs are right for."
Lanier said securing an easement for your land is a process involving an appraisal and then a negotiation of the restrictions.
"With these easements, there is negotiation involved, and typically the more that you give up, the more you get paid," he said. "I know one land owner whose conservation was permanent, and they could continue to hunt on the land, but that was all. They couldn't drive any type of vehicle on it, even a four wheeler. And, I have known others that were far less restrictive."
Called "the state's most influential environmental organization" by Georgia Trend magazine, the Georgia Conservancy focuses on environmental advocacy, land conservation, coastal protection, growth management and water quality and supply.
"Georgia landowners have never had more financial incentives to protect their land that they love," said Shannon Mayfield, director of the land conservation effort for the Conservancy. "We spend all day, every day helping them find the program that is best for them financially, and most suited to their land, and they get paid to keep their land."