August 1, 2018

Conservation Stewardship Program: Managing Private Lands One Acre at a Time

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By Bob Caveny

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) was created 10 years ago and is available in every county in Illinois except Cook. Implemented nearly the same time as property tax adjustments were being made to the Illinois Property Tax Code, CSP is designed for landowners who have at least 5 acres of unimproved land (i.e. not developed, mowed like a yard, or in agriculture) and agree to improve their property’s native flora and fauna in exchange for a reduced tax assessment. CSP ensures that all management plans meet the landowner’s goals and goals of the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan. Landowners must complete the management activities they agreed to in their plan to stay eligible for the program.

Management of any habitat is critical in conserving the integrity and connectivity of habitat. While much of the remaining habitat available to wildlife continues to be subdivided into smaller parcels, it will become necessary for small landowners to aid in the overall conservation of certain native species. With more than 97 percent of Illinois privately owned it is imperative for landowners to work together.

map of Illinois

Currently there are 2,800 active CSP enrollments on more than 96,000 acres across the state, with approximately 56,000 acres forested, 16,200 acres in grassland, 11,600 acres of wetlands and 8,600 acres of ponds. The largest enrollment counties include Williamson, Fulton, Putnam, Schuyler, St. Clair, Henderson, Mason, McDonough, Perry, Saline and Sangamon, each having at least 2,000 acres enrolled.

The CSP was developed for land that may be classified as recreational land; it does not benefit landowners to enroll property valued at the farmland tax rate. The valuation for recreational land is 33.3 percent of Fair Market Value (FMV). Upon approval of a CSP management plan, the valuation of the property is reduced to 5 percent of FMV.

The property tax savings are the basis for achieving the habitat management objectives a landowner sets for their property. Landowners are responsible for carrying out management activities. No habitat management funds are available through CSP, and landowners are encouraged to seek other cost-share opportunities. Most CSP management plans contain different management activities, but the most common are timber stand improvement, invasive species removal, tree/grass establishment and wildlife structures.

Images of a woodland undergoing habitat management.

Enrolling into CSP is simple

  1. Develop a Plan. Landowners may develop their own management plan but are advised to consult with a local wildlife professional.
  2. Submission. Documents are submitted to the CSP office in Springfield.
  3. Field Review. IDNR field staff review each property before approval of the landowner’s management plan. If IDNR field staff have been to the site, or have developed a management plan, enrollment may proceed without a site visit.
  4. Enrollment. After the management plan and application are approved, CSP staff send the landowner a certification letter which serves as the official program enrollment. The program is effective for 10 years from the date of the certification letter.
  5. Landowner Agreement. The landowner checks the appropriate box and sends the paperwork to the CSP office.
  6. Department of Revenue. CSP staff send the signed certification to the Illinois Department of Revenue (IDOR). Reports are submitted weekly to IDOR on Monday.
  7. County Notification. IDOR has 30 days to send the certification to the appropriate County Tax Assessor.

Forest and Conservation Programs for Private Landowners

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) administers three conservation programs that provide landowner tax benefits. Summarized below are key points of the Forest Development Act, Conservation Stewardship Program and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, including sources for additional information.

The Illinois Recreational Access Program logo.

The Illinois Recreational Access Program is available to private landowners as well and has the possibility of cost share funding to implement practices on the ground. The public access is controlled public access, and all participants are registered and must carry a permit. Participating landowners receive a management plan (makes the landowner eligible for the FDA or CSP programs with the possibility of cost share for plan implementation), liability coverage and a stipend based on acreage and activities they allow on their property.

Forestry Development Act (FDA)

  • 10 acre minimum; forested acreage primarily (does include tree plantings and up to 10 percent related, integrated, associated, non-forest conservation use).
  • Management plan required. Must meet Illinois Forest Management Plan standards.
  • Conduct management as outlined in plan.
  • Cost share may be available through FDA and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs.
  • Taxes based on farmland assessment, soil type and productivity. FDA acres are assessed at one-sixth farmland tax assessment.
  • FDA certification must be approved by management plan preparer, landowner and IDNR district forester.
  • Plans are re-written every 10 years. Certifications can be renewed under existing plan number.
  • Plans can be transferred to the purchaser of the land. The new landowner must contact the IDNR district forester and meet eligibility.
  • Legal access is preferred but not mandatory.
  • For more information visit the Illinois Forestry Development Act

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

  • 5 acre minimum; undeveloped forestland, grassland or wetland area.
  • Management plan can be written by landowner. Plan must have a majority of the components of the Illinois Forest Management Plan.
  • Conduct management as outlined in the plan.
  • Cost-share is not available, however, funds may be on availability basis through the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP).
  • Taxes based on Fair Market Value (FMV) of the property. Residential and recreational property is assessed at 33.33 percent of FMV. Approved enrollees can benefit from a reduced assessment to 5 percent FMV.
  • Certifications must be signed by the landowner.
  • Enrollment is for 10 years. A new application and plan must be submitted at that time.
  • Plans and enrollments cannot be transferred at time of sale, however, new landowner is able to apply on taking possession of the property.
  • Legal access is required.
  • For more information visit the Illinois Conservation Stewardship Program.

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)

  • 20 acre minimum for permanent easement or an entire farm field currently enrolled in federal CREP and within the 100 year floodplain of the Illinois and Kaskaskia rivers watersheds.
  • Management plan is recommended but not required. Landowner should follow guidelines of the Conservation Plan of Operation.
  • Landowners should follow the guidelines of the CREP easement and any management plan they have in place.
  • Cost share is available on cropped acres.
  • Preferential tax assessment may be available by completing the P-TAX-337-R form and sending to IDNR for approval.
  • Property tax can be reduced to 8.33 percent FMV in counties with population less than 200,000, 25 percent FMV in counties with population greater than 200,000.
  • CREP is offered as either a 15- or 35-year extension of a federal CREP contract or as a permanent easement which can include additional non-cropped acres.
  • CREP extensions and permanent easements run with the land. Release from the program is not authorized.
  • Legal access is required; no public access is allowed.
  • For more information visit the Illinois Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
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Bob Caveny is the Conservation Stewardship Manager in the Private Lands Division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He has a BS degree in Environmental Biology from Eastern Illinois University and a MS in Wildlife Biology from Texas A&M University.

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