Land Conservancy working for the future
beautiful ranch east of Raton will remain in traditional agricultural use and at the same time continue to provide habitat for pronghorn, cougar, deer, and many other species thanks to conservation easements negotiated by the owner and the New Mexico Land Conservancy.
The easements, completed in April 2016, apply on 3,560 acres of the larger Mesa Ranch. The ranch is managed for cattle grazing, but the landowner is committed to sustainable agricultural practices. The area under easement takes in sections of Johnson Mesa and Taylor Canyon, the landscapes including native grassland and areas populated by piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine, oak, and Douglas-fir. The easements protect the land from development into the future.
This is one of the most recent of nearly 80 projects under the conservancy’s belt. “We are the statewide land trust for New Mexico,” said executive director ScottWilber. “We have over 160,000 acres conserved under easements. They have averaged 2,000 acres, but we have also done small agricultural easements like the one we did in the village of Corrales to support their farmland preservation program. That’s how I first met Sayre Gerhart, who is an architect from Corrales and our new board chair.
“We also try to preserve some of these big ranches. If I said we had any kind of specific orientation, I would say we’ve concentrated on ranchland protection in the last few years.” The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) has focused on the northeast and southwest portions of the state, partnering, for example, with the CS Ranch and Fort Union Ranch to protect private lands that will provide connectivity in wildlife habitat.
The conservation easement is a unique tool available for the protection of wildlife habitat, productive agricultural land, and water resources, as well as recreational areas and scenic views, from subdivision and development. The landowner agrees to voluntarily give up part or all of his or her development rights, in perpetuity. The motivation can be conservation or keeping the farm or ranch in the family and in production, while receiving compensation in the form of tax deductions.
The easement process is flexible, especially regarding which parts of the prop- erty are to be protected. “There’s a lot of tailoring,” Wilber said, “but obviously there are some minimumcriteria that have to be met in order to qualify them for federal and state tax benefits, which is the driving force behind these easement donations and the land-conservation movement. At the federal level, there’s a substantial donation available and even more substantial in the last year, since Congress finally made the conservation-easement deduction permanent. Landowners who earn at least 50 percent of their income from agriculture can actually take a 100 percent deduction: they can write off 100 percent of the value of these easements.
“Let’s say a rancher with 2,000 acres donates an easement worth $1 million. The land trust community has worked with Congress to expand the time frame within which these deductions can be taken, from six to 16 years. If your income is $100,000 a year and you had that $1 million contribution, you could write off $100,000 a year for 10 years. In the past you couldwrite off $30,000 a year for five years. So we’ve better enabled them to utilize the full value of their contribution.”
At the state level, there is a tax credit for 50 percent of the value of the easement donation, up to $250,000. “The other important element is we made that credit transferable, so someone who donates an easement can either use the credit to offset the state tax liability for up to 20 years or they can take these credits and sell them on the openmarket for roughly 80 percent of their value.”
Realtor MooThorpe, who was involved for about 10 years as a board member on the conservancy, mentioned another way people can use the easements: “If you have a family ranch and most of the kids don’t really want to ranch, you can raise funds for your estate planning with your family. You can do a conservation easement and sell the tax credits to an investor and get some cash. It’s a way to keep the family assets and protect the ranch from getting developed.”
The NMLC has expanded from a staff of two to a staff of seven in the last couple of years. All but one work out of the Petchesky Conservation Center on Santa Fe’s south side. It was formerly the ranch home of Gene and Jane Petchesky. A passionate conservationist, Jane Petchesky donated the ranch house and 262 acres of land to the conservancy in 2009. The staffer who is not in Santa Fe is Ron Troy, who mans the organization’s only satellite office, in Silver City.
Connor Jandreau, NMLC stewardship coordinator, said the organization’s process varies from case to case. “We often respond to landownerswho come to us with an interest and a need to do something like this, but we’re also out looking. We do GIS mapping to assess the biodiversity and conservation values across the state to determine where we should or can focus our resources. Part of the reason that Ron is down in Silver City is because that’s a really rich ecological region with a lot of conservation values that we’ve identified, particularly along riparian corridors.”
Does the conservancy seek properties that will help protect species that are endangered or threatened? “That is an important conservation value and a funding opportunity for us,” he responded. “It helps to attract federal dollars when we’re bringing projects to the table that will improve habitat, for example. So it runs the gamut from properties that are really operating
Truchas Lake photographed by Connor Jandreau