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Commentary: Conservation gifts come in many sizes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2012 - Missouri's newest state park -- Don Robinson's gift of 843 acres in Jefferson County -- is a welcome addition to an outstanding list of public areas in our region. Don Robinson State Park will forever enhance the recreational, social and educational opportunities for all of us .

Fortunately for us, Robinson joins a long line of generous and forward-thinking landowners, philanthropists and conservationists who have wanted others to enjoy the Missouri countryside as much as they did. The value of their gifts becomes even more apparent with time.

Robinson, who died of congestive heart failure in March at the age of 84, made his fortune selling a spot remover called “Off.” He donated the land to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and established a trust to pay for maintenance of it. The land is in the Cedar Hill area of Jefferson County, about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis.

When Henry Shaw created the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1859, it was a piece of farmland relatively distant from downtown St. Louis. In the 1930s and '40s, A.P. Greensfelder donated his land and time to protect thousands of acres in then-rural western St. Louis County as conservation lands. Alice Busch contributed to the purchase of almost 7,000 acres, in 1947, for hiking, archery and fishing in what has become the Busch Wildlife Area.  The Desloge family gifted the land for Johnson’s Shut-Ins in 1955. 

More recently, in the 1980s, Ted and Patsy Jones provided the leadership and financial backing to create the Katy Trail State Park. All of us benefit from these incredibly generous acts.

Many landowners in our beautiful state share the sentiment expressed by Robinson when he said that he didn’t want his land “sold … and divided into mobile home parks and strip malls.” Most, however, do not have the financial independence or the type of property that would trigger the gift of a prospective state park.

Thankfully, property owners in rural Missouri have options for protecting land short of the creation of a new park or natural area. They can continue to own their land but ensure that all future owners will preserve the property they cherish. The technique for accomplishing this bit of environmental goodness is the conservation easement.

Through these voluntary – but permanent – conservation easement agreements, scenic vistas, historic farms, treasured prairies, woodlands and other wildlife habitat can be protected for the enjoyment of future generations.

Essentially, the private property owner – with the assistance of a qualified land trust – places a permanent deed restriction on the property and continues to hunt, farm, cut timber, raise livestock and live on the property as he has in the past.  The owner can also sell or gift the property as he would otherwise.

However, in the portion of the property covered by the conservation easement, there are permanent limits placed on the amount of development that can take place.

Remarkably, land conservation is so important to so many of us – those of us who hunt and fish, hike and ride bicycles, sketch or geo-cache, or simply appreciate the beauty of greenspace – that our political leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is united on this issue.

Last month a total of 303 House members co-sponsoredthe Conservation Easement Incentive Act (H.R.1964), which makes permanent a recently-expired tax incentive for conservation easements. This represented the largest number of co-sponsors of any tax-related bill in this session and illustrates true bi-partisan support for preserving land.

This legislation may encourage more Missourians to add to the 40,000-plus  acres of privately owned land that are protected from future development.

Robinson personified this ideal as expressed by John James Audubon, who said, “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”  With the help of land trusts, many more conservation-minded Missourians have the opportunity to do something to positively shape the future for our children.

Ted Heisel is director of the Ozark Regional Land Trust, the oldest and largest land trust in Missouri, which holds a number of conservation easements in Franklin and Warren County. Dan and Connie Burkhardt own a farm west of Marthasville, on which they have placed a conservation easement. Two years ago they established the Katy Land Trust, an organization dedicated to voluntary land conservation along the Katy Trail.