SPRINGFIELD — A Missouri couple has taken steps to protect a large stretch of acreage along the James River from development by handing over easement rights to a conservation group.
Larry and Nancy O'Reilly, who are working to return their land along the river to its natural state, donated the permanent conservation easement to Ozark Greenways.
The 3.5-mile-long stretch is the first along the James River to be enrolled using a specific federal Clean Water Act grant. Joe Pitts, executive director of the James River Basin Partnership, said the O'Reillys will retain ownership of the land but give up their rights to develop it. The O'Reillys will continue to pay property taxes on the land covered by the easement.
"The key with this easement donation is now we have a 3.5-mile stretch on the James that will never be developed," Pitts said.
The James River Basin Partnership applied for and received a $1 million Section 319 grant to create a Conservation Easement Program to protect creek and river corridors from pollution and erosion. Pitts said some of that money will be used to plant willow thickets along an area of O'Reilly property that has severely eroded. The river carries soil and any contaminants it might contain downstream into Table Rock Lake, The Springfield News Leader reported.
"I've always enjoyed rivers and floating, and this conservation easement creates a border on the river and the springs that feed into it that keeps cattle out and creates a natural barrier to prevent erosion," said Larry O'Reilly, a director of O'Reilly Automotive, Inc. "The easement ranges from 100 feet to 300 feet wide and stays with the property even if we sell it."
Larry O'Reilly said the 1,500 acres his family owns northwest of the small town of Ponce de Leon used to have a lot of cattle on it. After he bought the property, he removed the cattle and the cross fencing and planted more than 14,000 trees and bushes along the river corridor to stop erosion.
The O'Reillys received no money or tax advantage from the Section 319 grant program. They are eligible for a small stipend to maintain tree plantings along the river's edge.
Terry Whaley, executive director of Ozark Greenways, said his group is considered a land trust, and the O'Reilly easement will be placed in its control. He said he hopes other landowners along the river will consider similar arrangements.
"It's a big decision, but one that will protect the river for future generations," Whaley said.