Natural Areas Registry
The Mississippi Natural Areas Registry is founded on our state's strong belief in the rights of private property owners and our pride in Mississippi's rich natural heritage. It is designed to honor and recognize the owners of outstanding natural areas for the commitment to preservation of our state's most unique remaining habitats. Since more than two thirds of Mississippi is in private ownership, our citizens hold the keys to the future health of these habitats. Remnants of prairies, longleaf pine savannahs, pitcher plant bogs, woodland ravines, streamside forests of mixed beech and magnolias are just a few of the special habitats that need to survive into the next century and longer so that our generation won't be the last to know these special places.
The registry simply encourages the voluntary preservation of important natural lands in private ownership. It works by asking landowners to make non-binding agreements with the Museum of Natural Science that they will manage the land to protect what is special about it. The landowner can cancel the agreement at any time with notice to the Registry Program.
If the landowner wants to go farther than registry and give a binding conservation agreement, such as a tax deductible conservation easement, or a negotiated dedication to public use with ad valorem tax relief, the staff of the Natural Heritage Program can guide this process.
How does the Mississippi Natural Areas Registry Work?
Who Operates the Registry?
The Natural Areas Registry was created by the Legislature in 1976 as part of the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program. Ours was one of the first three nationally, and was started as a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the Mississippi Park Commission (now the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks or MDWFP). Natural heritage programs now exist in all 50 states. Our mission is to maintain an inventory of the natural communities of plants, animals, and fishes in the state, including endangered species, geological features and fossil records. Employing both printed and electronic records, it acts as a repository for Mississippi's natural history. The Heritage Program now is housed in the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science which is part of MDWFP.
How does an area qualify for the Registry?
To qualify as a Mississippi natural area eligible for registration, a property must contain one or more of these characteristics:
- habitat for rare, threatened, or endangered plants or animals.
- plant communities characteristic of the native vegetation of Mississippi.
- outstanding natural features such as old-growth forests, caves or wetlands.
How does inclusion on the Registry protect a natural area?
Registration effectively encourages conservation of important natural lands in private or public ownership. By informing landowners of the uniqueness of particular sites, registration reduces the chance that significant natural values may be inadvertently destroyed. The same recognition will discourage others, such as government agencies and utilities from disturbing the area.
What say does the landowner have in the registration process?
The registration of a natural area is totally up to the landowner. It is a voluntary decision, and will not occur without his or her approval.
What recognition does a property owner receive for including his or her land in the Registry?
In honor of the commitment to protect the land, the owner receives a framed certificate of appreciation from the director of the Museum bearing the landowners name and the name of the area, and a subscription to Natural Newsline, the Museum's quarterly newsletter With approval from. the landowner, his or her participation in the Heritage Program can be publicized in the newsletter or in Mississippi Outdoors. The directions to the area are not published.
What commitment does the owner make with a registry agreement?
- Preserve and protect the area to the best of the landowner's ability.
- Notify the Museum of Natural Science Natural Heritage Program of any threats to the area such as pollution, rights of way, changes in drainage.
- Allow the Mississippi Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks a first option to purchase the natural area so that if the landowner should ever decide to sell it, a purchase offer can be made if funds are available.
Is the registry commitment binding on the owner of a registered natural area?
No. The commitment is non-binding and may be cancelled by the landowner at any time, with a 30-day written notice to the Natural Heritage Program. If the landowner fails to protect an area, with the result of destruction or degradation of the important natural features meant to be protected, the area will be removed from the registry and the landowner will receive written notification. There are no penalties for removal of an area from the registry.
Does the registration of a site permit public access to private property?
No. Registration of a natural area provides no rights of public access to private property. As with any private land, visitors must receive permission from the landowner before entering the property.
Is management assistance available to the owner of a registered area?
Yes. An owner of a registered area may receive management advice from the staff of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science or from the Nature Conservancy.
What are the other options for protection of natural areas?
There are two binding options by which a landowner can preserve natural areas found on his or her land.
1. The gift of a conservation easement is a binding legal agreement that a natural area will be spared from development in perpetuity. These are filed in the courthouse records, and will bind future purchasers or those who inherit the land. Easements are said to "run with the land." Easements are sometimes called deed restrictions, rights of way, or servitudes and are rights less than full ownership that a landowner can sell or donate. The landowner still pays property taxes on lands on which a conservation easement has been granted. The services of an attorney, and a land appraiser are needed to negotiate a conservation easement.
A. Income Tax Features
A donated conservation easement, know as a qualified conservation contribution, is a special kind of donation that works as an itemized deduction applied to individual or corporate income tax. Section 170 (h) of the Internal Revenue Service Code contains all the requirements for these specialized tax deductions. They must meet the "conservation purposes test", must be perpetual, and must go to a qualified holder or charity. The Nature Conservancy, a Mississippi land trust, and various state agencies all qualify as holders. A deduction of up to 30% of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) is allowed. This deduction may be spread over a period of six years.
B. Estate Tax Features
A conservation easement under 170 (h) can also be used as an estate tax reduction and is one tool that a landowner can use in estate planning to lighten the inheritance tax load on his or her heirs. This gift can occur during the lifetime of the landowner or it can be made shortly after death by the administrator of the landowner's estate.
2. Dedication of a natural area to the Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.
This is a dedication to public use of some or all of the property ownership interest and exempts a landowner from paying ad valorem taxes (county property taxes) on the part of his or her estate granted away. The assessment of taxes is reduced by the amount of the value of the interest in the property which is conveyed to the Commission. The landowner and the Commission together negotiate the portion of the landowner's rights to be transferred to the Commission for the people of Mississippi. The transfer can be a sale, or a donation and can be made during the landowner's lifetime or in a will as a devise or bequest.
This option for land preservation is best understood as comparable to the dedication of a public park by a private landowner. Except for the dedication of Clark Creek Natural Area in Wilkinson County, which was a sale, the Natural Heritage Program has not arranged one of these dedications by donation in its 26 year history. It is likely that a conservation easement could accomplish similar preservation goals as a dedication, but the tax relief features are different. For the right landowner, a dedication may be an attractive option.
One of several waterfalls at Clark Creek Natural Area in southwest MS. Photo credit: Andy Sanderson
If you are interested in participating in the Mississippi Natural Areas Registry Program please contact the Natural Heritage Program staff at the address listed below.
Mississippi Natural Heritage Program
Mississippi Museum of Natural Science
Miss. Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks
2148 Riverside Drive
Jackson, Mississippi 39202-1353
Phone (601) 576-6000