Drive through the fringe of virtually any American town or city and you’re likely to see it: A shrinking patchwork of farms and parks breaking against the hard edge of development. The last old farmer on the edge of town retires and sells his land, and before you know it, the former farm’s wetlands, windbreaks, and cropland are filled, dozed, and flattened to make room for new mini-malls, car lots, and suburban tracts.

Our collective loss in this process is more than aesthetic. We also lose biodiversity—sometimes entire species—as well as environmental protection from floods and droughts, an overall reduction in the natural processes that keep the planet in balance.

More than a decade ago, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a collaborative organization comprised of scientists from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., warned that the continent faces a “widespread crisis” due to shrinking biodiversity. Fully half of North America’s most bio-diverse lands, the researchers cautioned, face significant threat. Today, the threat continues.

Haugens_w_Abbie-IMG_0987-crpd

But there is some hope. In addition to local policies like zoning and national policies like the Endangered Species Act, the individual actions of thousands of landowners can preserve the biodiversity of their holdings—not just while they own it, but forever.

The legal tool that does so is a “conservation easement.” A conservation easement is essentially like mining or timber rights, where the right to use the land can be sold (or donated) separately from the land itself, except that a conservation easement grants the legal right of land development to an organization that pledges to protect the land from environmental threats. The owners can still live there and, in some cases, farm there. The easement transfers to the next buyer, so the land is permanently protected. At the same time, the owners get tax benefits both through their donation to the trust and through lower real estate taxes.

Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC), based in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is a leading advocate of conservation easements. In their home turf along the Mississippi, Kickapoo, Wisconsin, and Bad Axe rivers of southwestern Wisconsin, the group has preserved more than 16,000 acres of land. In addition to easements, the group uses more temporary, voluntary agreements, as well as direct purchases of nature areas, to protect the land.

CoglanDNRvisit 009

Founded in 1997, the organization has recently launched new initiatives tailored for women land-owners. In 2014, MVC partnered with other local organizations to sponsor workshops for women owners on a variety of topics including land management.

One of the unique qualities of conservation easement is that it empowers individuals to take action and make a change for the better rather than waiting for a government agency to step in and make it good. For Laura Coglan, one of the MVC participants, personal experience informed her choice to put her 63-acre farm into conservancy: She grew up on a farm that was later turned into a housing tract.

“It seems like living space for animals, birds, and plants will always be pushed aside to make more room for people,” Coglan says. “I couldn’t let that happen to this beautiful and unique little corner of Wisconsin, and you never can know what may happen years down the line.”

Organic Valley is committed to promoting environmental sustainability and is proud to support the Mississippi Valley Conservancy in its work as good stewards of the land.