Conservation easements protect historic landscapes, heritage gardens and a Grant Wood view

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VIOLA — A perpetual conservation easement protects 300 acres of nature and history in the scenic hills just north of this Linn County town.

“How lucky am I to have grown up and lived my life in this beautiful setting,” said Cindy Burke, whose family over the past 40 years has pieced together and greatly enhanced their portion of the rounded hills emblematic of Grant Wood country. “Now (with the easement) I have the contentment of knowing it’s not going to change.”

Among the many treasures protected by the easement are the 80,000 trees planted by her family on more than 100 acres of former pasture and cropland; heritage gardens featuring thousands of flowers rescued from the residences of friends and family members who died or had to move; and the historic landscape, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that served as the model for Wood’s renowned painting, “Fall Plowing.”

The easement also provides a haven for flora and fauna in a state whose slim slice of nature continues to dwindle.

The easement gives her parents “peace of mind knowing the land they love will never be subdivided and developed,” said Burke, a board member of both the Linn County Conservation Department and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted — protection against dividing the property after I die,” said Burke’s dad, Horace “Hoddy” Gates, 80.

A conservation easement, a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency, permanently limits uses of the land to protect its conservation values.

“You still own the land. You can sell it or will it. But the easement goes with it,” Burke said.

Interest in conservations easements, in Iowa and nationally, has soared in the past decade, said Joe McGovern, president of the Iowa National Heritage Foundation, which holds the easement on the Gates family’s property.

“We’ve been doing them since the mid-1980s. In 2005 we had 55 conservation easements, and we have 155 now,” with 12 of those in Linn County, he said.

McGovern said more than 17 million acres nationwide have been protected by conservation easements. In Iowa, more than 25,000 acres have been thus protected, with his organization holding the easements on more than 20,000 acres.

Land governed by easements remains on property tax rolls, and the easements can in many cases offer tax advantages to the property owners, he said.

Gates and his sons, Al and Don, with assistance from Burke, have planted about 80,000 trees, mostly by hand, on the property since 1976.

“The first trees planted, white pines, are over 65 feet tall,” said Gates, whose methods for instilling a love of nature in his children included taking them out of school each May for a two-week mushroom hunting vacation.

Al Gates said the actual planting entailed much less effort than protecting each tree from damage or destruction by browsing deer.

The easement prohibits mining, fracking, subdividing and the hunting of predators, said Burke, who considers the evening howling of coyotes as much a part of the property’s soundtrack as the morning singing of birds.

The certification of the Grant Wood historic landscape, Burke said, was instrumental in the successful effort in 2002 and 2003 to deter the establishment by Bluestem Solid Waste Agency of a landfill on 565 acres adjoining her family’s property.

The proposal generated heated resistance from neighbors, who formed the Matsell Area Preservation and Protection group, which raised more than $75,000 for legal fees and to fund the certification effort.

“The old timers always said he painted something here,” said Burke, who resolved to document it during the divisive landfill struggle.

Burke said she took a book of Wood’s paintings to a hill with a commanding view and started leafing through it. When she compared “Fall Plowing” with the panorama before her, Burke said she knew she’d found the location.

“Every detail was the same, from the barn in the background to the paths worn by cows as they grazed on the pasture. You can literally count the swells as the land slopes downhill,” she said.

Her discovery, certified and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, proved decisive in turning the tide against the unwelcome landfill.

Burke said some of the perennial flowers in her meticulously groomed heritage gardens are 100 years old.

They include thousands each of hostas, irises and day lilies, all dug up and transplanted from the yards of families and friends, all documented by source and year of arrival.

“They meant something to somebody, and now they mean something to me,” she said.

With the easement, Burke said she hopes they will mean something to someone after she’s gone.

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