Conservation easements growing in popularity

By BEN HAVENS/ Montana State News

Private land under conservation easements has grown rapidly in the United States from 500,000 acres in 1990 to over 30 million in 2011. This is due to several advantages they come with.

Conservation easements are an increasingly popular method of land conservation. Rather than conservation groups buying up portions of land for the sake of preservation, conservation easements are the process of land owners donating the developmental rights of their land, while still owning it in all other aspects. Conservation easements typically cost about 40 percent less than land purchase.

According to the Montana Environmental Quality Council, about 1.8 million acres of Montana land is under conservation easement as of 2009. These 1,331 easements make up around 2 percent of Montana’s land. Ninety-nine percent of the land that is under easement is held by private owners while the conservation easements are held by both government organizations and non-profit land trusts.

According to the World Resources Institute, conservation easements provide a number of benefits to private land owners. The property is still retained. No actual exchange of property takes place. Conservation easements provide a high degree of flexibility as far as meeting the goals of the property owner and the conservation group. They provide active forest management.  And perhaps most importantly, they offer a reduction in property and sometimes income tax for the property owner.

Despite their growing popularity, conservation easements are fewer in southern United States.  Though the south makes up 37 percent of the private land, only 18 percent of conservation easements are located in southern states.

A few explanations for this disproportion are hypothesized by the World Resource Institute.  There could be misconceptions among southern landowners of what easements are and what property rights they forgo by entering into one. Even if landowners fully understand the implications of the agreement, they may conclude (erroneously or otherwise) that the costs outweigh the benefits. Conservation easements are perpetual, meaning that the conservation rights belong to the conservation group or government organization even if the land is sold to another party. This perpetual nature may create a degree of uncertainty that southern land owners do not want to enter into.

The rising popularity of conservation easements suggests that benefits (whether philanthropic or financial) exceed costs. Assuming this is indeed the case, we should see the disproportion in the southern states shrink over time with education and continued efforts from conservation groups.

– Edited by Patrick Carroll

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