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A controversial bill outlawing permanent conservation easements in Nebraska will be held over until next year, giving wildlife advocates one less battle to wage this session.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, sponsor of LB529, said Monday he wants to bring all sides of the issue to the table this summer to seek solutions.

Conservationists say permanent easements are an important tool for protecting wildlife habitat, but some rural county officials say they lower tax revenues and erode funding for public services.

Carlson's bill would prevent nongovernmental organizations from holding an easement for longer than 10 years without approval from county elected officials. It also would bar the Nebraska Environmental Trust from making grants to private groups for easements or land acquisition.

"I think there's some agreement there's a fairness issue, but can't we handle it without extreme legislation? I'm not sure if we can," Carlson said Monday.

The Natural Resources Committee held a Feb. 3 public hearing on the bill. Six people testified in support, 19 against and four in a neutral capacity.

Last week, Carlson asked his colleagues on the Natural Resources Committee to hold the bill over until the 2012 session. He plans to seek an interim study over the summer.

"I'd rather have it in the form of a round-table discussion than a public hearing," he said. "I'd like an exchange of information, a back and forth."

A permanent easement is a legally binding agreement between a private landowner and an easement holder, which can be a governmental agency or private organization. The land remains in private ownership, but the owner accepts certain restrictions, typically relinquishing housing development rights.

Conservation easements can be used to protect or restore wildlife habitat while often allowing grasslands to be used in livestock grazing or haying. Agricultural easements, meanwhile, allow the land to stay in crop production. They can provide tax advantages that make them attractive to private landowners.

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Carlson's bill would put an end to both types of easements in Nebraska.

The senator said he is concerned about examples of easement holders taking land out of crop production, especially irrigated land, and seeking a lower tax assessment for property reclassified as pasture. He hopes to explore ways to keep counties "economically whole."

Some critics of the bill have questioned its constitutionality, saying it would infringe on the rights of private owners to manage their land as they see fit.

"I think we can have some fruitful discussions and hopefully come to an agreement that will satisfy most of the parties," Carlson said.

Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

 

 

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