Why Private Conservation Easements are Essential To Protecting Georgia Land

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy made news around the state last week when he set aside more than 1,000 acres in Harris County outside of Columbus for permanent protection under a conservation easement.

“As someone who grew up in Atlanta and watched it explode, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if this could be here forever and nobody could develop it? ‘ ” Foxworthy said in an interview with the AJC.

The property had previously been eyed as a spot for a golf course or other residential development. With the current easement in place, even if the land is sold it may not be developed. Foxworthy maintains his private property rights and may live on the property. He also receives a sizeable tax incentive for placing the property in an easement, one of the many carrots used to help persuade land owners into taking similar action.

This is exactly the way the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) was intended to work. After years of research and recommendation from state wildlife professionals, the Georgia Wildlife Federation and many of our conservation partners, Georgia developed the SWAP with five priority actions: prescribed fire, protection of aquatic and wetland resources, public land protection, private lands incentives programs, and the control of invasive exotic species. Of these, private lands incentives programs have the most potential to create large-scale wildlife and conservation protections in Georgia.
While many feel it is the state’s duty to protect wildlife and many wish the state would get out of the way, the reality is that the state of Georgia holds less than 2% of Georgia land in long-term protections. Many of the properties Georgia hunters and sportsmen are most familiar with such as state Wildlife Management Areas are only leased to the state, some of them as short-term leases, meaning the property could be sold or developed when the state’s lease expires. The federal government protects a small amount of Georgia also through national parks and refuges like the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Tybee National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938 through executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt as a breeding area for migratory birds and other wildlife. Taken together, the land owned outright by the state and federal government in Georgia still makes up less than 5% of the state.
This is why private conservation incentives are so important. Even in the best of times, budgets for managing and protecting wildlife are found wanting. For real, sizable protections of wildlife habitats and essential wetlands, it will take the investment of us, the citizens of Georgia.

Foxworthy also told the AJC, “I’m in a position to do it so why not? It’s a beautiful place. I wanted a place for my grandkids to see that is unspoiled.”
There is less and less unspoiled land to leave our children and grandchildren. Through the smart use of conservation easements, we can take that matter into our own hands. While this may seem encouraging, less than half of one percent of Georgia’s land is currently protected through easements.

For more information on how to place your land into a private conservation easement, visit the Georgia Land Conservation Program.