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A threat to perpetuity?

What your land trust should know if your conservation easements are reaching the 30-year mark



The following post was written by Mike Carlson, Executive Director of Gathering Waters.


Conservation easements last forever. At least that’s the intent. But is your land trust aware that there may be a threat to conservation easements embedded in state law? A section of state statute known as Wisconsin’s Marketable Title Act may make conservation easements vulnerable to attack after 30 years if certain proactive steps aren’t taken by easement holders. Fortunately, you can do something about it.

Here’s how the law works:

Wisconsin’s Marketable Title Act allows for something called a “bona fide purchaser defense.” Basically, if someone purchases a piece of property and isn’t put on notice of adverse claims, like deed restrictions, they can claim the “bona fide purchaser defense.” If the landowner prevails, they can eliminate restrictions on their land and they get their property free and clear.

So how might this impact conservation easements? There is no definitive case law in Wisconsin on this topic, but there is some concern that the statute may allow a “bona fide purchaser” to extinguish a conservation easement if they haven’t been put on notice otherwise. In Section 706.09(1)(k) of the Wisconsin Statutes, a conveyance of property can be free of adverse claims for “[a]ny interest of which no affirmative and express notice appears of record within 30 years.”

At least one Wisconsin Court of Appeals case (Turner v. Taylor from November 2003) has referenced conservation easements when interpreting this statute, but no court has ruled directly on whether this section applies to conservation easements.

Regardless of the case law, land trusts should consider erring on the side of caution by ensuring that their conservation easements are “of record” every 30 years.

Here’s what you can do:

Given this potential threat, the next question you’re probably asking is: what can my land trust do to ensure that our conservation easements are “of record?”  To be clear, it does not mean that the full conservation easement needs to be re-recorded every 30 years, but rather that some form of appropriate documentation referencing the easement needs to be filed with the register of deeds in order to have notice in the official record.

In Wisconsin, we are fortunate have a number of conservation-minded lawyers who have worked with land trusts to develop templates on this very topic. One attorney in particular, Bill O’Connor—also one of the founders of Gathering Waters—developed a “Template Notice of Preservation of Claims” document for Groundswell Conservancy (formerly Natural Heritage Land Trust), and has granted us permission to share it as part of this blog post. Other organizations like The Nature Conservancy have used a similar approach.

If you have questions about the template or the appropriate documentation for filing a notice of claim, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our staff, and consider being in touch with your organization’s legal counsel to determine your appropriate next steps.

It’s worth noting that this threat to conservation easements could eventually be solved legislatively, and Gathering Waters will be looking for an appropriate opportunity to fix this issue in state law. However, in the meantime, please consider when your conservation easements will hit the 30-year mark and consider taking appropriate steps (like setting up a system for periodic reminders) to protect these vital conservation tools.

100% FOR THE PLANET challenge

Fontana Sports and Patagonia are giving away $15,000 to local organizations, including Gathering Waters!

If you purchase Patagonia merchandise from Fontana Sports (in person or on their website) between Friday, November 17 – Sunday November 26, you can donate 100% of the sale to Gathering Waters. Get some holiday shopping done early, and support Gathering Waters at the same time! Thanks to Fontana Sports, and Patagonia for supporting Gathering Waters.

Geneva Lake Conservancy Receives Rohner Donation to Purchase Land for Children’s Fishing Park

The following post was written by our wonderful land trust member Geneva Lake Conservancy.


The Geneva Lake Conservancy recently purchased 5.1 acres in Williams Bay with a generous donation from the Jack Rohner family.

The vacant land will be used to create a children’s fishing park in honor of Mr. Rohner’s late wife, Helen.


Helen Rohner, with great granddaughter Caroline. Helen’s love for children, inspired the Rohner family donation to create the fishing park in Williams Bay.


The land is located along Highway 67 west of the Kishwaukétoe Nature Preserve. It is bordered on the west by Southwick Creek, a trout stream that runs into Geneva Lake. The park plans call for fishing spots to be created for children along the creek, as well as a boardwalk across a wetland on the property that will connect with Kishwaukétoe.

“We are so grateful to the Rohner family for their donation to preserve this land and to create a park that will encourage children to learn about the wonders of nature,” said Dennis Jordan, GLC Chairman.

Helen Rohner, who died in 2016 had been a Lake Geneva summer resident for many years.

“She could still remember the World War II troops coming through Lake Geneva on the train,” said her daughter, Barbara Franke. Franke said her mother loved children. Helen Rohner’s daughter and 2 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren still spend part of their summers at Lake Geneva homes, she said.

The park will also feature “story boards” on the lifecycles of trout and include a native plant nature trail with educational signs and other nature activities. A small barn on the property will be painted with a large brown trout that are the predominant fish in Southwick Creek. In the future, the barn may also be restored for a variety of children’s activities.

“This park will not only provide new activities for children, it will also help draw families and other visitors to Williams Bay to learn about the health of our fisheries and the importance of protecting aquatic habitat,” said Karen Yancey, GLC Executive Director.

In conjunction with the purchase, the GLC will work with the Village of Williams Bay and Kishwaukétoe Nature Preserve on their plans to reroute Southwick Creek to make it easier for trout to reach their spawning grounds further north on the creek.

The Conservancy plans to ask for volunteer assistance from a variety of civic and community groups as it develops the park.

“The Conservancy holds a conservation easement on Kishwaukétoe Nature Conservancy and hopes to work with their volunteers to interweave children’s activities and create an extension of the hiking trails and native habitats at Kishwaukétoe,” said Yancey.

The current timetable calls for a dedication of the park to be held on Memorial Day weekend, 2018.

The Geneva Lake Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, not-for- profit organization and recognized land trust with almost 2,000 acres under protection. Its mission is to preserve and advocate for Walworth County waterways, natural areas and working lands.

Monroe County Public Land Preserve opens


The following post was published by News 8 in La Crosse on October 20, 2017.

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – The new Wilton Hemlocks Nature Preserve in Monroe County will protect rare habitat on the Kickapoo River.

Thanks to a major grant from the Paul E. Stry Foundation, Mississippi Valley Conservancy has accepted a land donation from Eric and Inese Epstein. The Epstein’s donation of 89.14 acres of property is on the Kickapoo River and has been named the “Wilton Hemlocks”. The preserve is open to the public for research, education, hiking, fishing, and paddling.

It is the first Mississippi Valley Conservancy public nature preserve in Monroe County and brings the total Conservancy protected nature preserves to 21.

“The generosity of the Epsteins and the Stry Foundation ensure that the site will be open to the public for hiking, bird watching, nature photography, fishing, and canoeing,” said Carol Abrahamzon, executive director of the Conservancy. “We will also use the land for environmental education programs and make it available for researchers and graduate students to study the rare species, some of them state-listed, using the property.”

Caledonia Conservancy Receives Racine County Executive Community Impact Award


The following post was written by Christina Lieffring at The Journal Times on October 11, 2017.


YORKVILLE — Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave devoted a segment of his 2018 budget message at Tuesday’s County Board meeting to introduce the Community Impact Awards, which are presented to an individual or group of people and a nonprofit organization “making a difference in Racine County.”

“In a world that sometimes feels as though it’s moving just too fast, I want to pause a moment and shine a spotlight on a couple of these truly thoughtful and dedicated people and their good work,” said Delagrave.

The first award went to six Burlington officials in recognition of their work during the floods in July: Mayor Jeannie Hefty, City Administrator Carina Walters, Fire Chief Alan Babe, Police Chief Mark Anderson, Director of Administrative Service Megan Watkins and Finance Director Steve DeQuaker.

“These six leaders symbolize the can-do attitude and strength of all the first responders, volunteers and countless others who rose to the challenge and put others before themselves, helping the community truly be Burlington Strong,” said Delagrave.

Hefty, Walters, Babe and DeQuaker were present to receive the award, which also comes with a $2,000 grant. Hefty said the city does not know at this point what the city plans on doing with the grant, but she was happy to receive the award, which she saw as a recognition of the people of Burlington.

The nonprofit organization that was recognized was the Caledonia Conservancy, a majority volunteer organization that since 1994 has conserved more than 170 acres of walking, biking and equestrian trails in the village.

“Their efforts have expanded recreational trails and allowed residents to enjoy the area’s natural beauty,” said Delagrave.

Executive director Suzi Zierten was present to accept the award along with some of the Conservancy’s longtime volunteers.

Protecting a Vital Tool


The following post was written by Mike Carlson, Executive Director of Gathering Waters, for the Fall 2017 edition of Saving Land Magazine.

Have you ever wondered why conservation easements are such powerful and effective tools? Or why you and your local land trust should care about their legal underpinnings? What if you learned that a few attorneys and academics may change the very foundation of your conservation work, and probably not for the better?

Unfortunately, this last question isn’t hypothetical. A recently formed study committee—a group, it’s worth noting, that does not include any land trust practitioners—is assessing whether the Uniform Conservation Easement Act (UCEA) should be amended to add new red tape.

In case you’re not familiar with the history of the UCEA, it was originally developed in 1981 by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) to provide states, like my home state of Wisconsin, with a template to enable private land conservation. Many states have adopted the UCEA in its entirety, with more than half codifying at least some of the model language.

Now some members of the ULC want to “fix” something that isn’t actually broken, and I would urge the land trust community to pay close attention to this process as it unfolds. When the Land Trust Alliance approached me and other state association representatives to weigh in on this important topic, we readily agreed. This issue is just too important to ignore. Here’s why:

  • Unnecessary government oversight would burden public agencies with duplicative work and saddle taxpayers and easement holders with an unfunded mandate. In Wisconsin, agencies with expertise in conservation are severely understaffed—particularly our Department of Natural Resources—while other state agencies like the Department of Justice have limited, if any, experience with conservation easements.
  • UCEA modification would create unpredictable outcomes across the country, given the varying political environments in each state. Anyone needing a reminder about how dramatically a state’s
    political landscape can shift should look to Wisconsin and the swings that we’ve experienced since 2010. Decisions about land conservation in Wisconsin look a lot different today than they did less than a decade ago. Exposing the UCEA to the vagaries of the legislative process without thoughtful state-specific strategies will only create challenges for those of us on the front lines.
  • The original UCEA has been flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of local cultures and state laws, and further expanding the scope of the UCEA—seeking one-size-fits-all solutions—simply won’t work everywhere. Wisconsin could be a case study in cultural variances between urban and rural areas and differing views about the role of government. Our nearly 50 land trust members are able to navigate these nuances because they work directly with landowners to effectively balance private property rights with the public good.
  • Even if your state does not use the UCEA, courts across the country cite the UCEA in their decisions, often regardless of state law. Many states’ attorneys general routinely propose legislation to conform to all uniform acts, so changes to the UCEA could be introduced without consultation with the land trust community. We are fortunate to have the UCEA codified in Wisconsin, but we know that what happens in states across the country could directly impact our work.

The Land Trust Alliance and its Conservation Defense team should be applauded for responding quickly to this issue—keeping the land trust community informed, submitting written comments to the ULC study committee and posting useful information on its website ( Take a few minutes to review the latest updates and please stay vigilant to help protect the integrity of our most vital conservation tool.

Wisconsin’s Wetlands are at Risk

Wetlands are an incredibly important part of Wisconsin’s natural landscape. They not only serve as habitat for fish and wildlife, but also filter pollution out of our drinking water, protect against flooding, and provide wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation. Wisconsin has a long bi-partisan history of protecting and conserving wetlands across the state — but now they face a serious threat.

Without wetlands, opportunities for outdoor recreation like duck hunting will disappear.

There are two bills (LRB 4115 and LRB 4410) being circulated in the state legislature that aim to strip protection from an estimated 1 million acres of wetlands across Wisconsin. The legislation would relax regulations on virtually all “isolated” wetlands that aren’t otherwise covered by the federal Clean Water Act. In other words, the bill assumes that all wetlands that aren’t connected to navigable waters are useless (or replaceable through mitigation), which couldn’t be further from the truth. This measure could decimate a significant percentage of our wetlands.    


Call your state senators and house members and urge them NOT to co-sponsor these bills (LRB 4115 and LRB 4410). The deadline for co-sponsoring is Friday, October 6th, so call today and let your Wisconsin legislators know that you support protecting Wisconsin’s wetlands.

For more information, please see this excellent summary on the Wisconsin Wetlands Association website.

Natural Heritage Land Trust is now Groundswell Conservancy





The following post was written by our wonderful member Groundswell Conservancy.


Many of you may remember the excitement and sense of accomplishment when a group of people came together in the early 1980s to protect a few acres of woodland on Lake Mendota. The creation of Wally Bauman Woods started a conservation movement that has saved many wonderful local landscapes of farmland, wetlands, woods and prairies, and has provided public places to hike, hunt, fish, and play in and around Dane County.

Our movement is now 34 years old, and our accomplishments have really added up. Since we got started as Dane County Natural Heritage Foundation and later became Natural Heritage Land Trust, we have permanently protected more than 11,000 acres of our beautiful landscape.

Protecting more land and serving more people is more important than ever. As our community grows and becomes more diverse, we continue to need land for good health and vibrant communities. But the competition for land gets stiffer every year. So what do we do?

Our core purpose is unwavering—to protect special places forever—but we are re-dedicating our work to the broader community so that we can protect even more places that are important in all our lives.

Our new name—Groundswell Conservancy—represents everything Natural Heritage Land Trust is and does. The name creates a powerful identity that will help us enlarge our wonderful base of friends, supporters, and partners. With it, we can connect with young families, college students, urban youth, and environmentally conscious consumers with limited outdoor recreation experience—the conservation heroes that we will surely need tomorrow and in the years to come.

We may have a new name, but we have the same purpose as when we started in the 1980’s – to protect special places, forever.

Groundswell Conservancy also helps tell how your impact goes beyond “acres saved” to “lives changed.” We are using our own experience in land protection to give disconnected youth important work experience on our preserves, helping students at Lake View Elementary School learn outside in an enlarged outdoor classroom, and securing land for local food production by immigrant farmers.

Conservation of cherished places—Cherokee Marsh, Black Earth Creek, Westport Drumlin, Patrick Marsh, Town of Dunn farmland— doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because our community comes together to make it happen. I look forward to all we will accomplish together in the coming years.

Yours in conservation,

Jim Welsh
Executive Director

Glacial Lakes Conservancy easement protects Pigeon River corridor

The following post was written by Bob Schuh for USA-Today Network-Wisconsin.


Glacial Lakes Conservancy accepted a conservation easement Sept. 5 protecting 39.6 acres of a 51.28-acre property along the Pigeon River in the Town of Sheboygan.

The easement encompasses the Windway House, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The property is bisected by three-quarters-of-a-mile of the Pigeon River. The forested floodplain is identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a state-recognized wetland area.

Two other GLC preserved properties — the Garton “Bur Oak” and Northup “Bella Terra” conservation easements — are in close proximity along the Pigeon River corridor.

Along with this corridor, conservation values for public benefit include the rich and diverse natural habitats that provide shelter and food for large and small mammals, birds, insects and amphibians. Steelhead, salmon, whitetail deer and wild turkeys have been documented within the property boundaries.

The wooded areas contain American beech, bur oak, maple, basswood, wood anemone, marsh marigold, trillium, troutlillies and other species.

Glacial Lakes Conservancy is a private, nonprofit land trust offering conservation options to landowners and organizations in Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Kewaunee, Calumet and Fond du Lac counties. Visit

Door County Land Trust Protects 37 Acres Near Rowleys Bay

The following post was written by our wonderful member Door County Land Trust.


In late August, landowners Bruce and Joan Pikas donated a 37-acre conservation easement on their boreal forest tract to the Door County Land Trust. The conservation easement adds to existing protected land in the area which includes several other conservation easements, The Nature Conservancy’s Mink River Estuary and the Land Trust’s Three Springs Nature Preserve. Ten rare plant species and 15 rare bird species are found within this protected landscape.

Bruce and Joan Pikas have lived in the Rowley’s Bay area for more than 40 years. When the opportunity arose to purchase this forested property, they purchased the land to protect it from being divided and developed. Joan said, “The longer we’ve owned this land, the more we realized it needed to be protected forever. The conservation easement with the Door County Land Trust ensures it will remain the same.”

“We love walking the property in every different season. We see turkeys, coyotes, porcupines, ruffed grouse….And we want to make sure that will never change,” says Bruce. More than 150 species of birds have been documented migrating through nearby protected lands.

Door County Land Trust’s land protection specialist Drew Reinke says, “Conservation easements are a key tool for protecting wildlife corridors and ensuring opportunities for wildlife to move freely across the landscape, while keeping the property in private ownership.” A conservation easement is a legal agreement made by landowners which protects the ecological value of property forever, regardless of future ownership.

Land Trust executive director Tom Clay says, “Some of Door County’s most wild and ecologically diverse lands are privately owned, but deserve the same level of protection as our nature preserves. We look forward to partnerships with landowners to create conservation easements that enhance our land protection efforts throughout the county.”

Protection of the Pikas property adds to current conservation efforts of the Door County Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy in this area. The most southern extents of Arctic boreal forest in North America are found along the Lake Michigan shoreline area of northern Door County, making the boreal forest of the Pikas property particularly significant. To the east of the property is the North Bay Lowlands Area which contains several high quality wetland communities. The property also lies within an 11,000-acre coastal wetland corridor recognized as a “Wetland of International Importance” by the Ramsar Convention.

Gathering Waters • 211 S. Paterson St. Suite 270 • Madison, WI 53703 • PH 608-251-9131 • FX 608-663-5971 •