It’s 8 a.m. on a cold morning last winter as the helicopter pilot lifts off the landing pad at the Morehead-Rowan County Airport. We have a two-hour flight to the Green River area where there are 44 conservation easements I need to fly over and photograph before the end of the day.
In Kentucky, The Nature Conservancy has just over 100 conservation easements—legally binding agreements with property owners that permanently limit certain uses on the land. We have even more in the works. They’re set up on three year rotations for site visits. Every three years, each easement is monitored twice aerially and once on the ground.
The most effective time to monitor conservation easements is during winter when leaves are off the trees so you can see the property better. On this day, the helicopter’s heater is going full blast, but it’s not helping. I rub my hands together, get out my maps and begin to go over the easements that I need to monitor. I also recall my review of Easement Documentation Reports that reveal the condition of each property at the time an easement was secured. That way, I should know what to expect.
The pilot lets me know we are approaching the coordinates for the first property on the list. As we fly above it, I take pictures, making sure to capture anything that is related to the easement—a sink hole that should have a buffer around it, tree plantings in river bottoms, the absence of new development or construction, or fences that were installed to keep cattle out of a stream. . . among others things. Once I have what I need, I give the pilot the okay and we fly on to the coordinates for the next easement.
As the day goes on, sunlight begins to warm up in the helicopter. (And there is a lot of area for sunlight to enter—picture the helicopter on the old television show, M*A*S*H.) Outside the big windows, I enjoy seeing so much of Kentucky’s beautiful and diverse landscape from 500+ feet up in the air within one day.
I also see threats to that landscape—development, unsustainable agricultural or forestry, and other activities that harm our lands and waters. I am reminded of what an important role conservation easements play in The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to preserve Kentucky’s natural environment. Specifically, we help to protect approximately 6,000 acres with conservation easements.
In the weeks after the flight, I spend time in the office completing Easement Monitoring Reports. I review them closely, ensuring that each property owner is meeting the terms of the agreement.
I don’t take this part of my job lightly. Most of the easements were donated, and are honored because the owners have similar objectives to our own. They want to ensure that their land will be conserved for future generations even after their own lifetime. It is our responsibility to ensure that happens.
Zach Pickett is a Conservation Practitioner with The Nature Conservancy’s Kentucky Chapter.