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For the future

Helping preserve critical habitats to keep them wild

With vast wild acreage of diverse habitats ranging from tidal marshes to mountain forests, Alabama offers sportsmen abundant places to enjoy the outdoors.

A little help from one non-profit organization can keep some of that habitat permanently wild. Based in Piedmont, Ala., the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust helps preserve about 325,000 acres in multiple states, with the majority in Alabama and Georgia.

“Our mission is to protect land for present and future generations,” says Katherine Eddins, executive director of Georgia-Alabama Land Trust. “We look to the future with a clear vision of our perpetual commitment to land conservation. We see a future where our rivers, coastlines and wild and working forests are preserved, cared for and cherished for the future use, enjoyment and education of generations to come.”

Ken Nichols next to a pine tree he planted when he was 14 on his family’s property in Dallas County. The Georgia-Alabama Land Trust helps preserve such lands across Alabama, Georgia and other states.

The land trust uses a legal agreement called a “conservation easement” to protect property. Under such an agreement, a landowner can continue using the property for hunting, farming or similar uses, but agrees to keep the land as natural as possible and never develop it commercially. The owner can sell the land or pass it down to heirs, but the conservation easement remains, keeping the land perpetually protected.

“A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between the land trust and the owner to protect the land,” Eddins says. “It changes the deed to the property so that the landowner keeps the land, but the owner’s intentions for that land are put into a legal document.

“An easement along the Cahaba River now protects 64 rare and imperiled plant and animal species, 13 of which are found nowhere else in the world.”

Landowners do not receive direct compensation for property put in easement. However, the land trust conducts a land appraisal. The landowner can then use that estimated value as a tax deduction.

“If people give up value like development rights from the use of their land for a conservation easement, the owners get a tax deduction for the value given up,” Eddins says. “The conservation easement donation can reduce estate, income and property taxes for the landowner.”

Most acreage preserved by easements remains private, but sometimes a government organization wants an easement for such public usage as trails, parks or wildlife management areas.

For instance, the land trust has been working to obtain easements to create a massive trail system connecting the Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia, just across the state line from Fort Payne, Ala., to Chattanooga, Tenn.

“We’re also working on another property just over the Georgia line where we partnered with Southeastern Cave Conservancy to create a cave preserve,” Eddins says. “We usually concentrate on more rural areas, but might work with a community to protect important property for parks or places with scenic value, perhaps for a green space plan. Even on private land, easements still help the people of Alabama because it’s conserved as wildlife habitat or for other natural uses. That benefits the quality of life for people living in that area.”

The land trust not only preserves land, but might also enhance or restore natural habitats. The organization did extensive work on restoring wetlands and critical native longleaf pine savannahs in Alabama and Georgia.

States prepare wildlife action plans that define habitat conservation priorities to protect flora and fauna within their boundaries. Sometimes, the organization seeks specific critical habitat it wants to enhance or preserve based upon those plans, but more often, individuals or groups ask for help with their lands. The organization also conducts periodic seminars on conservation easements.

“In Alabama, we need to focus on certain specific high-priority areas like parts of the Tombigbee or Coosa rivers,” Eddins says. “The Coosa River watershed, including the Choccolocco Creek watershed, is believed to support the largest number of endangered and threatened species found in any Alabama waterway of comparable size.

“We also rely upon the Alabama Forestry Commission’s guide on key working forest areas. We also look closely at soils. Food producing soils across Alabama and Georgia have been threatened by development over the past decade. Conservation easements can be used to preserve working farms and ranches.”

The non-profit organization receives funding from various sources, but most of it comes as donations from individuals passionate about conservation. Some foundations make donations. Sometimes, the land trust partners with other likeminded non-profit organizations, government agencies or corporations to collaborate on projects.

“We get a lot of phone calls from people interested in conserving their lands,” Eddins says. “The main way people find out about our work is through word of mouth. Our organization maintains a stewardship fund to ensure that we have the capacity to permanently monitor each easement annually. These funds, mainly built from contributions related to donated conservation easements, are not used for operations.”

To make a tax-deductible contribution, identify potential easement properties or obtain more information, contact the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust at 256-447-1006. On line, see www.galandtrust.org.

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com