By Michelle Heinrich, Operations Manager at the Taos Land Trust
If I had to pick just one most favorite task of all the cool things, I do at the Taos Land Trust it would be, hands down, monitoring the conservation easements we hold.
For those unfamiliar with the term, conservation easements are the heart of a land trust’s mission. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. In other words, it protects the land forever. Literally. Protecting valuable resources (for example, riparian areas, prime agricultural land, wildlife habitat, scenic view sheds, etc.) benefits not only the landowner, but the public as well. By permanently protecting the land they love, local landowners are allowing future generations to enjoy the beauty, culture, and bio-habitats that help make New Mexico a spectacular place to live.
The Taos Land Trust currently holds nearly sixty conservation easements all over northern New Mexico, including easements in Taos, Rio Arriba, Colfax, Santa Fe, Mora, San Miguel, and Bernalillo Counties. They range from grasslands to wetlands to high mountain forests and include farms, ranches, pastures, and amazingly beautiful natural habitat. Some are nearly 3,000 acres in size, while a few are under five. Some are lively examples of working agriculture, and some have not been touched for decades. Some are well-known viewsheds, like the iconic pastures of El Prado, and some are hidden gems tucked away in unexpected places like…well, I can’t tell you about those….But they’re all fascinating in their own way.
Essentially, monitoring a conservation easement is a little like legal trespassing; it gives you a chance to see some pretty spectacular private land that you wouldn’t ordinarily get a chance to see. At Taos Land Trust, we are legally obligated to monitor every easement once per year to ensure that all the terms of the easement are being followed. Monitors are given a binder containing maps, photographs, and documents outlining the description of the land, the legal terms of the easement, results of previous monitoring trips, and sometimes fun little tidbits such as old newspaper articles or Christmas letters from the landowners. To some, this might seem like dull paperwork, but to land geeks like me, it’s an intriguing exploration of the history of a particular piece of land.
Binders in hand, we roam the property, filling out a report detailing the condition of the land and any known structures. We take note of the flora and the fauna, the streams and the acequias, old structures and newly created game trails. Rarely do we discover a violation. More often than not we find things like beautiful horses, adorable donkeys, ancestral Puebloan settlements, hundred-year-old orchards filled with twisted apple trees, and stunning fields of wildflowers. One easement even contains the grave of the original owner! It can also be a delightful opportunity to meet and chat with the living landowners, who always have interesting stories to tell.
While hiking around someone else’s property and taking notes, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it greatly appeals to me. Monitoring conservation easements has allowed me to glimpse some of the most beautiful spaces in northern New Mexico and to learn their histories and secrets. And, of course, it can be great exercise! If any of this appeals to you, please contact me (Michelle Heinrich) at the Taos Land Trust office and we can get you set-up as a volunteer monitor.
It’s a wonderful way to help TLT while exploring some beautiful country!!