What is agricultural conservation easement monitoring?

A MALT agricultural conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between MALT and a landowner. As part of this legal agreement, MALT performs an annual agricultural conservation easement monitoring visit, consults with landowners or land managers about permitted uses to uphold the terms of the easement, and offers technical assistance for natural resource concerns.

You can read more about conservation easements here. In the meantime, we’ve sat down with MALT’s Tristan Brennan, stewardship program manager – easements, to get a run-down of what’s involved in these annual monitoring visits.

Hear him talk about his work in this short video clip.

Tristan, can you introduce yourself and why you are passionate about preserving farmland?

My name is Tristan Brenner and I grew up in East Marin and have always been drawn to the rural landscape of West Marin.

Preserving farmland is important in Marin as we face a demand to increase development to accommodate a growing population. Globally, we are seeing a population whose food needs could double in the next 30 years. At the same time we are seeing unprecedented ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss.

Preserving farmland is of the utmost importance when we think about providing food, preserving habitat, and maintaining functioning ecosystems.

Tell us, what happens in the years after we finalize a new conservation easement?

Annual Visits

The closing of the agricultural conservation easement, while a momentous occasion, is just the beginning of our relationship with the land and the people who work with it. From that point on the stewardship department works to ensure that the condition of the land stays at the same level or improves from the baseline conditions that existed when the easement was closed. 

One of the main stewardship activities that takes place in the years after it becomes an easement is agricultural easement conservation monitoring. The stewardship department conducts a monitoring visit on each easement, every year. 

Prior to the visit we review the easement history, baseline documentation, management plans and previous year’s monitoring reports. When we are conducting the visit we are observing and taking note of changes on the landscape.

These notes can include impacts such as erosion and invasive species encroachment, or investments such as riparian planting and improved water or manure management. Stewardship staff discern between changes that are a result of ongoing management versus climate-related impacts.

Annually we have a chance to check in with the landowner or manager of a property. It’s an opportunity to see what things are going well for them, where they are experiencing challenges, and identify any opportunities to support their work with any of our small grants programs or refer them to other resources or agencies who may be able to offer support. 

Every Decade

Every ten years, we do an update of the baseline photos that were taken during the easement acquisition process. This gives us the opportunity to look back and record longer-term changes. 

The baseline documentation includes an inventory and narrative of all the resources — natural and man-made — on the property at the time of the easement acquisition. The condition of the pastures and plant communities, soil studies, creeks and water sources, are all described.

Our baseline documents go hand-in-hand with the management plans developed at the same time. The management plan guides the operators and MALT’s activities and makes recommendations for improvements.

What are the benefits of easement monitoring?

The relationships we build with the landowners and land managers are paramount to the ongoing success of MALT’s mission. Without a supportive network of agricultural partners, no amount of funds or monitoring will keep agriculture thriving in Marin. 

We often gain valuable knowledge regarding economic and environmental trends affecting the whole agricultural community and region. We are then able to share information, resources, and grant funding opportunities we may be aware of that can help support their stewardship of the land and management of their agricultural business. 

We invest a lot of time in building strong relationships over many years and generations of families. Trust is the currency of our work and it is earned every year, visit-by-visit.

What happens during the annual monitoring visit?

We meet the landowner or property manager for a discussion and find out about current management activities, issues, and projects.

Next, we take a tour of the property to observe the land, land use, and any changes that have occurred since our last visit. We document what we see with notes and photographs that get entered into our online monitoring dashboard tool, so stewardship staff can refer to them for comparison in subsequent years.

What about the land are you looking at during your annual visit?

Generally speaking, our easements protect four conservation values: soil quality, water quality, open space, and scenic values. We are looking to make sure that none of those have been degraded compared to prior years.

Those things can be degraded through natural processes like erosion or invasive plant species overtaking grasslands. They can also be altered through man-made projects, livestock management, and development to a property. 

Another thing we watch for is general compliance with the agreed upon permitted and prohibited uses of the land spelled out in the easement document.  

Are there areas that get special attention during your visit?

We pay special attention to riparian zones as they are particularly sensitive areas. Water, soil, and vegetation are dynamic in these areas and our newer easements have Creek Conservation Area (CCA) provisions that add extra protection to riparian zones.

In those areas, for example, we anticipate that any grazing activities are managed closely. The landowner or manager may opt to limit access with exclusion fencing or use rotational grazing patterns to reduce any damage or runoff. We also look to ensure that un-permitted uses, such as agricultural structures, are not present in those zones.

What are some resources MALT staff may offer during a visit?

MALT’s stewardship department works closely with a handful of government agency and nonprofit partners. There is a tight-knit community of technical service providers with whom we work regularly to do projects large and small on the ranches in Marin. 

The Marin Resource Conservation District is one of our closest partners and offers both funding assistance and technical expertise on planning projects. The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service offers similar support on projects.

The stewardship department often directs landowners to these and other agencies and may also be able to contribute funding in the form of small, direct grants from MALT’s own Stewardship Assistance Program (SAP).

SAP is a tool that facilitates many improvements, often in collaboration with other agency and nonprofit partners. It is also the stewardship department’s responsibility to report to our co-funders with updates on the easement.

The stewardship department may help the landowner with applying for a given program, manage the logistics of the funding portion, provide maps, or help keep the project moving.