Increasingly used in the past quarter-century, the agricultural easement (conservation easement) technique in many parts of the nation is now an established tool for protecting farmland from urban conversion. Indeed, it may have become the most popular method for this purpose, given its value in the public eye for permanently protecting farmland and its financial attractiveness to landowners. Since the first agricultural easements were acquired in the late 1970s, more than 1.8 million acres on several thousand farms have been put under easement at an estimated cost of close to $2 billion in public funds. Dozens of local and state programs in almost half of the states are engaged in acquiring easements, primarily through direct purchase, but also through landowner donations, transfers of development credits and development mitigation. All indications are that the activity in this area is sharply increasing, considering the large expansion in federal funds for this purpose in the 2002 Farm Bill, large continuing state and local expenditures, and the recent adoption of the technique by many new programs.
As impressive as they may be, these numbers convey only part of the story. They tell little about the impacts and effectiveness of easement programs, about what the investment of public funds has bought in long-term public benefits. To what extent has the investment actually brought about enduring protection of substantial blocks of farmland? This is a question that will increasingly be asked in the future. Evaluating the effectiveness of easement programs requires looking beyond the individual farms that have been put under easement to examine the effects on broader landscapes and communities-on growth patterns, land use policies and local agricultural economies. Guided by this objective, our project moves beyond the usual measures of "success" in agricultural easement activities-acres acquired and funds spent-to evaluate land protection outcomes.
We present here the first product of The National Assessment of Agricultural Easement Programs. This first report is a collection of profiles and maps of the 46 agricultural easement programs included in our national sample. It is descriptive, presenting in abbreviated form the features of each program's activities, funding, organization, acquisition strategies, local planning connections, and community population and agricultural characteristics. (A more detailed version of this information is contained in the project's online database, portions of which are available for read-only access through American Farmland Trust's research website, www.aftresearch.org.) The two-page profiles for each program are organized by state and, where available, are accompanied by maps showing local easement patterns in relation to farmland base and urban areas. Preceding this detailed information is a comparative summary of common features and differences among the programs.
This first report lays the factual foundation for three later, more interpretive and evaluative reports scheduled for publication in 2004:
Report 2: Easement Acquisition Strategies. An analysis of the strategies programs use to select easement parcels, focused on how specific quantitative and qualitative criteria are applied in relation to program purposes and impacts.
Report 3: Easements and Land Use Planning. How easement programs and local planning policies and practices work or don't work to complement each other, with attention to zoning, comprehensive plans, growth boundaries, designated preservation areas and other land use tools.
Report 4: Agricultural Easement Programs: Impacts and Effectiveness. The summary and final report of the project, this report will examine the effectiveness of the sample programs in both perceptual and objective terms.
The Research Sample - The 46 agricultural easement programs examined in this assessment are located in 15 states (see following maps). Most are located in the northeastern quadrant of the nation, especially in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Others are concentrated in the Pacific Coast states of California and Washington, and in Colorado. Only single programs are found in a few states-Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and North Carolina. More than simply an indication of interest in the easement technique, this uneven geographical distribution of programs probably reflects more basic differences in the priority given by states and communities to farmland protection as an important policy objective.
Most of our programs are operated by county governments, with several other types of local governments also included. The sample also includes a few nonprofit land trusts in California and Colorado and the state governments of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and Vermont. The defining characteristic of a "program" for our purposes, is an organization that directly manages agricultural easement activities-including accepting applications from and negotiating with landowners, applying criteria for selecting parcels and legally holding acquired easements-regardless of the funding sources used. Thus, four state governments are in the sample because they directly manage these tasks rather than acting primarily to fund and establish standards for easement activities managed by local governments or other community agencies, the common pattern for other state governments that promote agricultural easements.
Another critical definition concerns program purpose. We included in the sample only programs focused on acquiring easements to protect working farms and ranches from urban development. This meant excluding programs that acquire easements on agricultural lands primarily for their natural resource, habitat or other open space values. Often this was a judgment call, since many programs-including those that give top emphasis to farmland protection-have multiple protection objectives. In some cases, we have had to sort out the agricultural and nonagricultural components of sample programs. But generally excluded from the sample are many land trust and state government programs that over a number of decades have acquired millions of easement acres, predominantly on ranchland. Instead, most of our sample programs concentrate on cropland easements and have been in existence only since the late 1970s, when the easement technique was first employed seriously to protect working farms from urban conversion.
Initially we sought to select for the study a complete set
of programs in the nation above certain levels of accomplishment-at least 1,000
easement acres each representing at least 10 farms or transactions. Quickly,
we discovered that a strict application of these thresholds would give us a
somewhat larger number of study subjects than our resources could handle-at
least 50 more local programs, most of them in the states of Maryland, New Jersey
and Pennsylvania. (Three programs originally selected were eliminated from the
final sample because we were unable to obtain the necessary information.) The
selection thus shifted from a complete to a representative sample. While keeping
the original minimums, mainly to include some smaller programs for geographical
diversity, we did not include a number of eligible programs in states already
well represented-mostly in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Also not included
in the sample were several recently formed but fast-moving programs that at
the time of our selection, in early 2002, had not yet reached the thresholds
in easements acquired.
Despite the absence of some significant programs, our 46 sample organizations present an accurate picture of the national use of the agricultural easement technique to date. They represent most of the agricultural easement acres acquired and funds spent as of 2002. (See Comparing the Programs for a description of sample characteristics.) The sample generally includes the oldest programs in the nation and those with the largest farmland easement accumulations. As indicated by the annual rankings of the Farmland Preservation Report, we include all of the most active 12 local programs in easement acres acquired.
Data and Methods - The National Assessment relies on two principal kinds of information: (1) factual details about each program's organization and activities and (2) the perceptions of knowledgeable persons about program impacts and effectiveness. Essentially all of the factual information has been collected and organized in nine major categories on the projects online database-accessible at www.aftresearch.org. This database is a "work in progress," with raw information continually being added and refined.
As the principal basis of the project's later reports, the perceptual information is provided by persons familiar with the performance of individual programs. We are conducting and transcribing extensive phone interviews with four or more persons per program. Interviewees include the program manager and at least three other local knowledgeable persons who are generally independent of program operations, including an agricultural leader, a planner, and a land appraiser or other land market expert. Questions asked deal with their estimates of program impacts on particular community patterns-land use, farm viability, land markets, long-term protection of farmland, etc.-and their views about alternative scenarios and program strengths and weaknesses.
Sources of Factual Information - Excerpted in the profiles of this report, the factual information comes in large part from data supplied by individual programs-including annual reports, spreadsheet accounts of program activity, websites, etc. Some information also comes from state government sources. For statistical information on population and agriculture, we used primarily the 2002 Census of Population and the 1997 Census of Agriculture. Since a reliable database capable of measuring farmland conversion within all communities nationwide does not exist, obtaining good comparative data from one source for all of the sample jurisdictions proved to be impossible. Instead we used information from either USDA's National Resource Inventory (NRI); reliable state government sources, as indicated for California and Maryland; or individual programs. In other cases, "comparative conversion data not available" is indicated.
Clearly the most valuable of all factual sources-from the start of the project and continuing today-were the managers of each of the sample programs who, in phone conversations and email exchanges, answered our numerous questions of clarification and elaboration about program details. (Appendix 1 lists the program managers and other staff who assisted with the project.)
There are too many data sources for individual programs to cite here; most are referenced in the online database. A small number of basic sources were especially valuable because they provided information for multiple programs. They include:
Map Sources - The color maps that accompany most
of the program profiles were provided by a large number of organizations with
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping capacities. As identified in Appendix
2, the mapping sources include some easement programs, associated planning departments
or other local government agencies, state government agencies and private firms.
The maps were provided in electronic format and show certain common spatial
features-agricultural easement locations, farmland, urban areas, other preserved
areas, major highways, major communities and mileage scales. Because they originate
from so many different organizations with variable data libraries, the maps
are not completely comparable from one program to another. Most critically,
the data layers depicting urban areas and farmland do not have consistent definitions
from one map to another. The colors assigned to particular data layers also