All about preservation: A look at the Zollinger Fruit Farm conservation easement

After yielding fruit for 100 years, the Zollinger Fruit Farm of River Heights is protected by a conservation easement that will ensure the land is not developed, keeping agriculture in Cache Valley for centuries to come. Linda Morse, one of eight children who grew up on the farm, lives in a home looking over the 40-acre lot where so many of her childhood memories are held. She and her siblings used to play in the ravine bordering the back of the farm, where they found a clay deposit. They spent hours sculpting figures out of the clay. “When I think about my childhood I don’t really remember the people, but I remember the land,” Morse said. The Zollinger children each signed the contract enabling the conservation easement, and lost a portion of their inheritance due to their decision, Morse said. She said all eight of them knew the conservation easement was what their father wanted. “In order to keep the property in agriculture, they gave up a portion of the value of the property which might have been realized through the eventual development or sale of the property,” said Paul Maynard of Trust for Public Land. === How easements are done >> The Zollinger farm is not the only piece of land in Cache Valley under a conservation easement, but is the fourth lot to be set in stone as preserved land. Conservation easements also have been issued to Brooke Ranch in Paradise and Bear River bottomlands in Trenton. The process to attain an easement is facilitated by the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit organization that focuses on conserving agricultural lands, and The Nature Conservancy of Utah, which directs its work toward wildlife and habitat preservation. Conservation easements are a relatively new conservation option for farmers. The first easements date back to the mid-70s and are still intact today, one being an 1,800-acre piece of land in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, according to The Nature Conservancy’s Web site, Cache Valley conservation easements are held and enforced by the State Department of Agriculture and Food and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which also provides funding to purchase conservation easements from landowners. The NRCS offers funding for two types of easements: permanent and temporary. The Zollinger Fruit Farm is under a permanent easement, meaning the land cannot be developed unless the easement is dissolved by a court order. In this case, there must be reason brought to court that the land would be better utilized as something other than a farm, but this can be a complicated process, Maynard said. Temporary easements are for a shorter period of time and the landowner is often compensated for allowing the land to be put under an interim easement. Properties are not only given conservation easements based on the landowner’s wishes, but are put in place because they serve a crucial role in saving wildlife, said Joan Degiorgio, Northern Mountains Regional Director for The Nature Conservancy. Selman Ranch, located south of Logan, was purchased as a conservation easement by The Nature Conservancy in order to conserve a rare species of trout. The species of trout mates annually in the mile of the Bear River that runs along the Selman’s land, Degiorgio said. === Where the money comes from >> Conservation easements cost 65 percent of the land’s development value and are based on a formal appraisal, Degiorgio said. Elements of the land such as soil quality assist in establishing the easement’s cost. Maynard said the land’s water and zoning rights are also taken into consideration. Funds for the easement come from a variety of sources, some federal and some private. Linda Morse was in charge of raising private money for the easement and was successful, receiving local support from neighbors and $40,000 from the Eccles Foundation. Morse said if the land had been developed it would have been worth two or three times more than the agricultural value. “It was a big sacrifice for our family to do this conservation easement, it wasn’t about the money,” Morse said. Some of money for the $1 million Zollinger easement was granted by the LeRay McAllister fund, but the money in this fund has decreased by more than half in the last year. Due to state budget cuts the fund now contains $400,000, compared to last year’s $1 million. The federal government may pay up to 50 percent of the total easement cost. The McAllister fund not only assisted the Zollingers in their easement, but the Selman Ranch easement as well, Degiorgio said. Conservation easements come with some flexibility, Maynard said. Properties with easements still have considerable value, and can be sold, subject to the conservation easement, which runs with the land. Because the easement runs with the land, the new owner must agree to comply with the regulations. Also, portions of the land can be set aside for operation-related structures if so desired by the land owner. “Most easements allow a limited development right, which provides for flexibility in replacing, enlarging, or modifying farm structures such as barns, sheds, corrals, etc.,” Maynard said. “Some also allow new residential structures such as houses or cabins.” === ‘Dad was pleased we did this’ >> When Ron Zollinger’s father, Jesse Zollinger, passed away in 2003 after running the farm since 1949, Ron agreed to fill his father’s position. He now works day in and day out harvesting a variety of apples and concocting apple cider. Zollinger said his daily routine has not changed much since the easement. He said he needs to be more accepting of wildlife in the area and keep hard surfaces on the land to a minimum. Every year someone from the agriculture and food department comes to the farm to make sure all structures and operations are running in agreeance with the conservation easement regulations, he said. Because the cost of the easement was so great, Linda Morse said, “it’s a miracle that we got this done.” She said much of her and her siblings’ will to attain a conservation easement came from their father’s love of the farm and their emotional connection to the beautiful land they were raised on. “I really felt like my dad was pleased that we did this,” Morse said.

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