The Lower Mississippi River Valley has significant and unique habitat types that need protection. These habitats are eligible for conservation easements. Habitats with significant conservation purpose include bottomland hardwood forests, longleaf pine forests, native prairies, red clay hills, bayous, coastal savannas, scenic rivers and streams, and more.
Wetlands are valuable for many reasons. They are host to rich wildlife and fish resources. They are also essential for sediment retention, groundwater recharge, and flood control.
Private landowners control three-fourths of the wetlands in the United States. These remaining wetlands provide critical habitat for waterfowl and other wetland-dependent wildlife.
Incentives such as the Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) will compensate landowners for removing land from agricultural production and developing wildlife habitat, thus helping to increase the wetland-dependent wildlife population.
Existing wetlands or areas where the landowner desires to convert the site to wetlands qualify for conservation easements.
Historically, low-lying forests were prominent in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. In the early 1800s, Thomas Nuttall described the Lower Mississippi River Valley as a “vast, trackless wilderness of trees, a dead solemnity…All is rude nature as it sprang into existence still preserving its primeval type, unclaimed exuberance.” C.S. Sargeant, in 1884, reported that the Lower Mississippi River Valley “possessed a wealth of timber of the most valuable kinds in a surprising variety.”
Over generations, many of these low-lying forested lands were cleared, changing the landscape. Yet, in some cases, these lands are not as productive for crops and may be better suited for timber production. Consequently, many landowners have become interested in planting these lands with bottomland hardwoods and protecting them.
Existing bottomland hardwoods or areas where the landowner desires to convert the site to bottomland hardwoods qualify for conservation easements.
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Grasslands are important both for the forage they provide for farming operations and for the habitat they provide for plant and animal communities.
The Mississippi River Trust’s native prairie initiative aims to help reverse the disappearance of native grasslands. We are interested in the restoration of native grasslands, which is particularly important in the Black Belt Prairie of Northeast Mississippi, the Jackson Prairie in East-central Mississippi, the prairies that remain in Tennessee and Kentucky, and the Coastal Prairie region of Louisiana. These grasslands once supported vast populations of bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and a variety of songbirds.
The initiative will permit grazing on the easement property. Haying is allowed after the nesting season for birds in the local area. Prohibitions are intended to prevent the cultivation of the soil for row crops and otherwise to break the soil to produce agricultural commodities.
Coastal Savannas, Marshes, and Prairies
The Mississippi River Trust has also placed emphasis on protecting pine savannas and their associated pine scrub, forested swamps, and tidal marshes.
These habitat types have high rainfall, low flat topography, and clay soil with a hard subsurface pan leading to infertile, acidic, waterlogged soil.
Prior to European settlement, the vegetation of the Lower Mississippi River Valley mainly consisted of pine savannas, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
These savannas were kept open due to high fire frequency. Grasses like wiregrass provided much of the fuel. As humans began suppressing fire, pines and shrubs invaded and replaced the native savanna plants.
In the 1960s and 1970s, much of the remaining open savanna was converted to pine plantations, which disrupted the natural water regime. Less than 5% of open savanna remains in the Atlantic/Gulf Coastal Plain, making it one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country.
Savannas have one of the highest diversity of plants in North America. Many species of orchids and carnivorous plants can be found in savannas. The wetter areas of the savanna are often called pitcher plant bogs.
Forested swamps are found throughout pine savannas. Swamps infrequently burn because of the high humidity, standing water, moist fuel, and shelter from the wind.
Pine scrub is a “mixed-bag” classification that includes natural pine flatwoods and former pine savannas now overgrown with slash pine. Due to fire suppression, it also has numerous shrubs that choke out the native wildflowers and sedges.
Tidal marshes are covered by vast areas of sawgrass with herbaceous species intermixed along the edges. All these species are adapted to the saturated soils caused by incoming tides.
Longleaf Pine Forests
Over the last two centuries, the original 90 million acres of longleaf pine has declined to less than 40 million acres (U.S. Department of Agriculture).
This vital ecosystem provides valuable habitat to a wide array of wildlife. Over 30 threatened and endangered species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, are dependent on the longleaf pine habitat.
Areas currently growing longleaf pine or areas where the landowner desires to convert the site to longleaf qualify for conservation easements.
Upland Hardwoods and Mixed Upland Hardwoods/Pine
Upland hardwoods and mixed upland hardwoods/pine have nurtured the economy and culture of the Lower Mississippi River Valley for generations. In recent years, these forest types have been converted into pine plantations.
Additionally, population growth, high estate taxes, community sprawl, and other development activities have encouraged the conversion of these forests to non-forest and non-farm uses.
Land that will protect, restore, or enhance the integrity of upland hardwoods and mixed upland hardwoods/pine forests are desirable for conservation easements.
Scenic Rivers and Streams
Each state within the Lower Mississippi River Valley has a program that allows them to work with landowners to preserve scenic rivers and streams. These programs aim to preserve at least a part of the natural beauty and aesthetic values of some of the Lower Mississippi River Valley’s rivers and streams.
To protect, restore, or enhance the integrity of a river or stream, land in a conservation easement may include conservation buffer strips, riparian corridors, wetland enhancement and restoration, bottomland hardwood tree planting, and a variety of desirable erosion control practices.
Areas That Can Improve Water Quality
The Lower Mississippi River Valley has abundant rainfall, finely textured soils, and intensive agricultural and forest production. These factors add up to substantial non-point source pollution (NPS) problems. Relatively high levels of nutrients, siltation, and organic enrichment (low dissolved oxygen) originating primarily from agricultural and timber production NPS are believed to be present in most ponds, lakes, and rivers in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.
Eroding soil on poorly managed fields and forests transports sediments, organic residues, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer residues to downstream water resources. These pollutants can cause fish and aquatic insects to die, cause algal blooms, and negatively impact the food web in a body of water.
Soil losses and the movement of other runoff-borne pollutants are significant reasons for the degradation of riparian and wetland systems in the basins of the Lower Mississippi River Valley.
Conservation easements are being used throughout the nation in watersheds to support the Best Management Practices (BMPs) for wetland and riparian area restoration and protection. Emphasis is on sites where intense population pressure creates many competing land uses. In this area, the preservation of fish and wildlife habitat and undeveloped corridors along streambeds is an extremely valuable by-product of easements acquired primarily to improve water quality.
Easements may support wetland and riparian restoration when eligible as a BMP for controlling NPS pollution. Wetland and riparian area restoration are eligible BMPs in the following situations:
- cultivated organic soils with channel drainage systems discharging to a stream or tributary
- pastured wetlands adjacent to streams or tributaries
- prior converted wetlands or farmed wetlands downslope or upslope from fields identified as critical upland sediment sources
Conservation easements using BMPs for forestry practices are also desirable. Eligible BMPs will be based on the following principles as described in the “BMPs For Forestry” by the state forestry commission:
- Do not allow surface water runoff from any type of soil disturbance to run directly into a watercourse.
- Maintain the integrity of all streambeds and banks.
- Do not leave debris of any type in streambeds.
- Do not spray chemicals directly into the water or allow chemicals to degrade surface or groundwater.
- Leave streamside management zones (SMZs) along watercourses.
- Provide for rapid revegetation of all denuded areas through natural processes supplemented by artificial revegetation where necessary.
Conservation easements are typically placed on native prairie, upland pine, upland hardwoods, mixed hardwoods and pine, longleaf pine, or bottomland hardwoods according to the native species occurring in the area in question. Conservation easements will not be placed on lands where more than 50% of the easement area will remain in agricultural production, and, even then, no-till or minimum-till system alternatives to more conventional tillage systems that result in more significant soil erosion and sediment discharge will be required and incorporated in the easement document.
The objectives of NPS wetland and riparian area restoration and protection easements complement other state and federal programs. Wetlands in the Lower Mississippi River Valley are fairly well protected from development through statewide zoning but are less protected from agricultural impacts. The easement program provides an economically viable alternative to the agricultural use of wetland areas.
This initiative will address the significant surface water pollution problems in the Lower Mississippi River Valley’s basins through conservation easements that restore or protect wetlands and riparian areas.
A Handbook for Landowners in the Lower Mississippi River Valley
This handbook is the guide for landowners in the Lower Mississippi River Valley who are interested in learning more about conservation easements. It provides background knowledge about easements, information about the steps involved, the tax benefits of conservation easements, and more about setting up a conservation easement.