The Washington Post

Private lands: The next step in conservati­on


Since last year, staff members at the Land Trust of Virginia have fielded phone call after phone call from landowners seeking to set aside their property for conservati­on.

“We’re getting calls like crazy,” said Sally Price, executive director of the nonprofit group, which works with private landowners to preserve farms and natural landscapes. “We’re doubling our staff for easement intake because we’re getting so many calls.”

The organizati­on expects to complete as many as 30 conservati­on easements this year, double the number it sees in a typical year, and it has recorded a fourfold increase in inquiries.

The group is one of many conservati­on land trusts that have seen a spike in interest over the past few years. More than 1,000 such groups operate across the country, seeking to save land from developmen­t by acquiring it or negotiatin­g conservati­on easements with property owners to limit the use of the land.

Environmen­tal groups and lawmakers are placing an increased focus on private lands in national conservati­on strategies. The “30x30” campaign — which has been adopted by the Biden administra­tion — aims to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, a goal that relies heavily on voluntary conservati­on efforts from private landowners.

But the growing interest in preserving privately held land has sparked a fierce debate between supporters who say such efforts guarantee environmen­tal protection­s and critics who say they take away individual property rights.

A handful of states are considerin­g expanding their conservati­on easement programs, which offer tax breaks to landowners in exchange for giving up developmen­t rights to their farms and natural lands. In many cases, those easements last in perpetuity, offering durable protection even when the property changes ownership.

“We’ve seen a greater emphasis on the value of private land conservati­on,” said Lori Faeth, senior government relations director with the Land Trust Alliance, a national group that convenes and advocates for local land trusts. “There’s a great opportunit­y for that to grow over the next several years.”

Lawmakers elsewhere have considered providing direct support for land trusts, giving them access to loans so they can acquire high-priority properties when they are for sale. Proponents say such efforts are critical to addressing the climate and biodiversi­ty crises, and for maintainin­g clean water and air.

But other state leaders are attacking the easement model. Lawmakers in several states have pushed to give officials veto power over conservati­on easements or to require expiration dates for the agreements. They argue that the contracts block future generation­s from making their own decisions about the land.

“The landowner needs to have a little bit more say about what can be done,” said Steven McCleerey, a former Democratic state representa­tive in South Dakota who put land into an easement in the 1990s. He sponsored legislatio­n in 2016 that would have put a 100-year limit on such easements, and sponsored a bill in 2020 that would have allowed conservati­on easements to be modified after the death of the granter. Both failed to advance.

“When you try and sell a piece of land that has a perpetual easement on it nobody wants it,” he said.

Other opponents argue that public money should not be used to fund conservati­on on private land. They contend that efforts to protect natural spaces will cause housing shortages in fastgrowin­g communitie­s and limit tax revenue for local government­s.

Both sides see the others’ efforts as something of a land grab. How states respond could determine the fate of tens of millions of acres.

Land Trust model

Land trusts, which are mostly nonprofit, have conserved 61 million acres across the country through a mix of easements, outright purchases and transfers to state agencies, according to the Land Trust Alliance. That is greater than the combined area of every national park in the United States. A quarter of that total has been added since 2010.

Roughly 40 million acres nationwide are protected by conservati­on easements, with about half of that under the stewardshi­p of land trusts. Reaching the goals outlined in the 30x30 conservati­on plan would require another 440 million acres to come under protected status.

“The thing about land is we're not creating any more of it,” said Meredith Hendricks, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. “It’s important to protect private land, because the pressure to develop in California is so high, these places will vanish if we don’t do something right now.”

The Santa Barbara group conserved more than 4,000 acres in 2021, a two-decade high, and it has added staff to handle the surge in interest.

Land trust leaders say their recent success probably stems from several factors — a boomlet of older residents conducting estate planning, many landowners struggling with the tax burden of family farms and ranches, a spike in outdoor recreation during the pandemic and a growing appreciati­on for natural climate solutions.

Some lawmakers think states should be bolstering the work of local land trusts. Maryland state Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-montgomery) proposed a bill this year to provide $10 million in revolving loans to land trusts in the state.

“Sometimes property comes on the market, but land trusts don’t have the capital on hand [to acquire it],” Luedtke said. “This is essentiall­y a way to allow the trusts to quickly respond to market forces.”

Because Maryland has little public land, nonprofit trusts are essential for conserving natural spaces, Luedtke said. While the bill failed to make it out of committee this year, he said he is optimistic that the proposal will gain more momentum next session, informed by details worked out during this year’s effort. He also is supportive of state efforts to increase funding for conservati­on easements.

Farther south, the North Florida Land Trust is seeking to scale up its conservati­on efforts from the nearly 28,000 acres it has protected. The group saw a record number of monetary donations and donors last year.

“Sea level rise is going to push our population inland, and that’s where our wildlife is,” said Jim Mccarthy, the trust’s president. “There’s going to be increased pressure on developmen­t of those inland portions, and that’s what we’re trying to save.”

Conservati­on easements

Because conservati­on easements typically lower the market value of the land, the federal government offers income tax breaks for property owners who put land into easement. Many states also offer property or income tax reductions. Proponents of easements say they allow farmers, ranchers and other landowners to hold onto their land, even when developmen­t pressure sends property values skyrocketi­ng.

“With land valuations being what they are, it’s getting more and more difficult for working farms and ranches to remain profitable,” said David Weinstein, western conservati­on finance director with the Trust for Public Land, a Washington­based conservati­on nonprofit group. “Private land conservati­on is seeing a boom because people are really concerned about land conversion from working lands into developmen­t.”

In Colorado, lawmakers passed a law last year to increase tax credit incentives for conservati­on easements. Landowners now receive an income tax credit of 90 percent of the donated value of the easement, up to $5 million. Following the bill’s passage, the state has seen an uptick in landowners granting conservati­on easements, said Melissa Daruna, executive director of Keep It Colorado, a nonprofit coalition made up of land trusts and other conservati­on organizati­ons.

“We knew that there was an opportunit­y to increase private land conservati­on and work with more landowners if we could make the numbers pencil out better,” she said. “We simply will not get to the climate goals we need without engaging in private land conservati­on, and it needs to be done in a way that's voluntary and supportive.”

Florida lawmakers, meanwhile, earmarked $400 million last year to preserve a statewide wildlife corridor. Most of the funding is expected to be used for conservati­on easements. State Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said it will allow animals such as black bears and Florida panthers to access habitat and retain their genetic diversity. The bill passed unanimousl­y.

“If you pave over that land, you don’t allow water to percolate down to recharge the aquifer,” Brodeur said. “We will run out of freshwater in Florida before we run out of land to sell people. At 22 million people, we’ve got to start being real mindful of where that tipping point is.”

But some other states see the growing interest in conservati­on easements as a threat. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) supports a bill that would limit easements to 99 years and give local government­s greater ability to reject such agreements.

“To me, a perpetual easement is a tool for taking away property rights from future generation­s,” said state Sen. Dave Murman (R), the bill’s sponsor, according to the Omaha World-herald.

Conservati­on leaders counter that putting an expiration date on easements would fail to protect critical habitat and farms from ongoing developmen­t pressure. Neither Murman nor Ricketts responded to requests for comment.

Nebraska’s push follows a new law enacted in Montana last year that gives the State Board of Land Commission­ers authority to deny conservati­on easements. Former state representa­tive Kerry White, a Republican who sponsored a similar bill that was vetoed in 2019, said government­s should have more say about which lands are set aside for conservati­on. The contracts, he said, can block public necessitie­s such as housing, power lines, water and sewer pipes.

“When you restrict developmen­t, you increase the cost of infrastruc­ture as you have to move around that property with a conservati­on easement in order for a piece of property on the other side of it to build homes,” he said. “If you want affordable housing, then you don’t want to create additional costs for infrastruc­ture.”

Environmen­tal leaders counter that the lands preserved for habitat and farming are far more likely to be targeted for expensive subdivisio­ns or mansions.

“Affordable housing isn’t at odds with conservati­on,” Weinstein said.

Mccleerey, the South Dakota Democrat who was defeated in the 2020 election, is running again this year, and says he will continue his push to limit conservati­on easements.

While any changes probably would not apply retroactiv­ely to the easement on Mccleerey’s property, he said he now regrets placing 52 acres into an agreement for wetland protection. The easement has blocked him from planting crops on the land or changing the landscape to improve hunting conditions.

“Why can’t it be 25 or 50 years, instead of perpetual, forever?” he said. “The next generation may have a different view of what they can do with that land.”

 ?? RACHEL Leathe/bozeman DAILY CHRONICLE/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Sherwin Leep in front of his Montana farm in 2016. His land was protected under a conservati­on easement paid for in part by the county's open space program.
RACHEL Leathe/bozeman DAILY CHRONICLE/ASSOCIATED PRESS Sherwin Leep in front of his Montana farm in 2016. His land was protected under a conservati­on easement paid for in part by the county's open space program.

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