Menus Subscribe Search

Earth to Stand on — Conservation Easements

• January 18, 2010 • 5:00 AM

This legal device shows that profit and protection of natural resources can go hand in hand.

In an area where much of the surrounding property is being converted to urban use, Sally Brown’s parcel of land will forever be farm and forest no matter who owns it in the future.

With a conservation easement in place, Brown can sleep in peace with the knowledge that her role as steward of the land passed down by her grandparents will be protected for future generations.

“Our DNA is literally in this soil with five generations of my family,” says Brown, art illustrator, in O’Fallon, Ill., a small town 30 miles east of St. Louis. “We were raised to have a relationship with this piece of land and to see ourselves as stewards. We can no more own the land than own the breezes that blow across it.”

Her story provides a window into the workings of an increasingly popular method of preserving natural open space in the United States: “conservation easements.” This legal device makes good use of the dictum that says you have to give something to get something — in return for losing potential profit by preserving natural features, the landowner gets a tax break.

These easements are usually between a private landowner and a public or government agency that restricts the amount and type of development and protects the property’s natural resources in perpetuity.

It’s not a new concept. Thomas Tyner, regional counsel for the Northwest and Rocky Mountain region of the Trust for Public Land in Seattle, says the first conservation easement occurred in New England around the mid- to late 1800s.

But in the 1960s and ’70s, interest in conservation easements grew due to increased concern with saving our natural resources, the growth in land trust organizations and tax incentives.

According Sylvia Bates, director of standards and research for the Land Trust Alliance in Canterbury, N.H., an increasing number of acres are being conserved by nonprofit land trusts (and by public agencies and state, local and national organizations) across the U.S. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of land trusts has increased 32 percent to 1,667, with the West the fastest-growing area for both acres conserved and new land trusts.

In the last five years, total acreage conserved by local, state and national land trusts doubled to 37 million acres – 16.5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The Conservation Biology Institute in Corvallis, Ore., hosts a national conservation easement database, and some regional efforts — like the Colorado Ownership Management and Protection Map create broader maps of all forms of land protection.

Not every property qualifies to have an easement. Land trusts look for property that holds a specific conservation benefit to society, such as a wildlife habitat, water resources, or even a scenic view or trail through the woods.

Some easements allow limited public access to the land under their control. For example, a wooded area could have a public hiking trail through it, or a farm might allow visitors to watch cows being milked or cheese being made.

In Brown’s case, the natural resources being protected include the North American flyway for bird migration, upland hardwood forests, animal habitat, riparian area to the small tributaries in the Engle Creek system including wetlands for frog, reptile and amphibian habitat plus a large man-made pond that provides an essential water supply to the native wildlife.

Nuts and Bolts
After doing her homework, Brown contacted Southwestern Illinois Resource Conservation & Development, which works to preserve natural resources — like open space — and create sustainable communities in seven counties. Brown consequently placed 188 acres of the Brown family’s original 380 acres into a conservation easement.

“Sally Brown was the impetus for us doing conservation easements today,” says Stephen Black, land conservancy coordinator for Southwestern Illinois RC&D, Inc., in Mascoutah, Ill. “Our responsibility is that we monitor the easement forever. Each year we visit the property to make sure the restrictions Brown put in the original easement remain in place.”

If there is a violation to the easement, Black’s organization will take legal action to make certain the provisions are carried out. As Black puts it, “Problems don’t usually happen until you have subsequent owners as the original owners are committed to the deed of trust.”

His group charges a minimum of $5,000 to set an endowment fund to pay for annual monitoring plus any legal fees incurred.

The formula for a stewardship endowment is the higher the value, the higher the contribution to the fund. Landowners need to be sure they have their own legal and financial advice before they enter into any conservation easement.

Given the set-up fees that include a stewardship endowment fund, legal costs to review the easement, an appraisal, a land survey and a title search, most people won’t spend money on a small piece of land since the bigger tax break goes to larger easement owners.

If your property is worth, say $1 million in today’s market, once the easement is on the property, your property value has decreased. “What you’ve done with the easement in place is effectively given away $500,000,” says Tyner.

“Any deduction that you claim as a landowner has to be verified and confirmed by an independent real estate appraiser. The conservation easement has to be granted to a 501(c) 3 nonprofit conservation group.” With all the criteria met, then the value of the conservation easement is a charitable deduction.

Traditionally, only the federal government offered easement tax credits, but 16 states now offer some sort of tax benefit.

“Most people don’t put land in an easement because of tax incentives anyway,” Black says. “There’s a desire to protect their property forever.”

A conservation easement isn’t an all-or-nothing arrangement. A parcel of land can be held out. Use of the property continues, but activities such as mining, logging and residential development are banned from the area in the easement.

And not all land conservation programs are forever. In California, a law known as the Williamson Act lets local governments work with agricultural landowners to restrict their property to agricultural use — usually for a rolling period of 10 years — in return for a break on their property taxes. The state reimburses the local governments some of their tax money they lose, but the state of California’s huge budget shortfalls this year so reduced those repayments, it effectively suspended the 35-year-old program.

With the Williamson Act, the conservation period is designed to expire. That’s not the case with most easements, but Tyner cautions, “There is a small potential to break the easement depending on what happens to the property over time. If the purpose of the easement changes, there’s no longer any reason for the easement.”

Perhaps the property contains a bird rookery but that species becomes extinct, and all the trees are destroyed. Then, there is no reason for the easement.

“Conservation easements have been very successful in protecting private land,” says Dave Theobald, associate professor in the College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. “And, they will be fairly successful in the future although the economy has decreased the amount of money available. But the public wants this type of legal arrangements to have more accountability and more transparency. Just what value is a conservation easement protecting?”

And, Theobald says, they are not the only tools in the arsenal to save the natural land. “We need to be working in concert with other groups, organizations and thinking up new methods.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Judith Stock
Judith Stock is a Los Angeles based environmental journalist. Her articles have appeared in USA Weekend, National Wildlife, Cooking Light, HGTV and Preservation Online. Her usual beat is green building, design and the environment. And, to mix it up a bit, she also writes about dogs, cats and health topics. When she's not writing, she's out playing catch with her two Labradors, Maddie and Holly.

More From Judith Stock

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.