RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: Conservation easements, a tool for our future

Whether done through the government in the form of public trust or, as noted here, through private conservation easements, we should all be looking strategically to the future and thinking of our long-term vision for this beautiful region.

Photo of Rachel Beglin with quote

This week I arrived back in the United States from rural Panama. Although Panama City, the nation’s capital, feels just like Miami with its high rises, resorts and cafes, the interior of Panama looks entirely different.

In rural Panama, I took public transportation — aka a pickup truck bed with seats installed — an hour and a half up a dirt (or mud, in the rainy season) road into a tiny community called Boca de Lura.

While some may see poverty — dirt floors, people riding on horseback, no electricity or roads — there is also something worth conserving there. Tradition. Calm. The simple life. Bird calls. Rivers. Children playing.

When I visit, I feel the urge to bottle up everything just as it is. To remember the women washing clothes in the river, to taste the fresh gallina de patio, or backyard chicken, before the inevitable day that development comes in and the place is changed.

Of course, as an outsider in the community, I have no place to say, “Don’t change.” I have no right to tell them, “Keep washing your clothes in the river because I think it’s beautiful and peaceful” when I return to the U.S. and wash my clothes in a machine.


But some of the folks in the older generation, the elders, also share a desire to maintain tradition. They, too, worry about a generation being raised with headphones and cell phones instead of machetes and sombreros.

They, too, wonder what will become of their community when the roads are built, when the electricity is someday installed, when the people start driving around in cars instead of on horseback.

A bigger question lingers, too: what will happen when the price of their land begins to rise as development encroaches? Will people who have farmed the same plots for generations suddenly sell out as the population grows and encroaches on the campo?

And is this just a Panamanian problem?

Bemidji and its surrounding towns are not so unlike rural Panama. Sure, we have more paved roads, almost all homes have electricity in some form and many households own cars. But like rural Panama, so much of northern Minnesota is beautifully undeveloped. Though, not untouched.

We know that not only have loggers already pillaged much of the state in the last hundred years but also that the Indigenous tribes have shaped the landscape here intentionally for thousands of years.

We may not be talking about virgin old-growth forest, but there are plenty of acres of woods, lakes, cattails, swamp, bog and farmland up here.

It may be pessimistic of me, but I have trouble believing it will stay that way for long.


Perhaps its climate change-induced anxiety or the fact that parts of the U.S. are predicted to be underwater while the southwest may have no water at all, but I have a feeling in the next 20 years that things around town might change as dramatically as rural Panama.

But I have just discovered a somewhat controversial solution to this problem, one that I am not convinced is the answer, but feel curious about learning more about.

Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements where private property owners restrict the future development of their land in the name of conservation values. This, notably, can be abused for the sake of tax writeoffs, as in the case of Donald Trump turning Mar-A-Lago into a conservation easement.

But the idea of the conservation easement — to set aside breeding habitats, breathtaking views, wildlife migration corridors, fertile land or historical landmarks — was created nobly by Congress in 1969.

While it might not be a perfect solution to preserving some of the delights of northern Minnesota and relies on landowners to make the personal decision to conserve the land on their properties, it is certainly a valiant option for those who have the privilege of owning land and are thinking of the next generation.

The Land Conservation Assistance Network is just one of many resources out there ready to assist landowners in conserving their properties for future generations.

It is, at the very least, a more peaceful and assured approach to preserving land than what is currently happening in Ann Arbor, Mich ., where a woman locked herself to a construction machine to prevent a forest from being turned into less-than-affordable housing.

Perhaps through conservation easements, we can have the foresight to avoid putting our children into the fight of protecting the land they fished, swam, hiked and camped into becoming more of a concrete jungle.


It goes without saying how valuable our wilderness is. Sequestering carbon, providing food and medicines, supporting the local tourism industry, providing hunting grounds for so many community members, it would be a shame to lose that someday.

Whether done through the government in the form of public trust or, as noted here, through private conservation easements, we should all be looking strategically to the future and thinking of our long-term vision for this beautiful region.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast. She can be reached at

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