Opinion: Conservation easements, a chance to save America’s best farmland

By Guest Author

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 27, 2014 - Our country's population is projected to increase by at least 75 million in the next 50 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This will require our nation to greatly increase its infrastructure, housing, and, of course, expand our food and feed production. The troubling aspect is that while all of this dramatic growth is taking place, the United States is losing farm, ranch and forest land at an alarming rate, with three acres a minute being lost to development.

In 2006, Congress provided critical tools - in the form of an enhanced federal tax deduction for conservation - that encouraged landowners, including a great number of farmers and ranchers - to donate the development rights to their properties in exchange for a significant tax benefit.  These land donations were known as a conservation easements, and were a win-win situation for rural economies and conservationists, since farmers and ranchers were still allowed to work their lands, earn a living and contribute to the tax base while preserving valuable food production acres and grazing lands for future generations.  

Lets Talk Food Unfortunately, this important tax incentive expired last year, resulting in lost opportunities for land conservation. The good news is that there is broad-based, bipartisan political support in Washington to make the conservation tax incentive permanent in the form of pending legislation before Congress.  But we must act now.

Since the enhanced incentive was first passed, conservation easement donations increased by 35 percent, to a million acres a year, with great growth potential in the future.   

Land trust easements have had such an impressive rate of growth because they not only allow the land to be used while it is being conserved - whether it is for farming, ranching, hunting or hiking - but actually conserve land at a very affordable rate.  The cost of federal land purchases for national parks or forests has averaged around $12,000 per acre, versus $400 for enrolling it into an easement.  

Land trust easements have become a huge opportunity for working lands, which has permanently changed the face of conservation. Land protected by easements remains private land, which can also be passed on to heirs or sold by its owners. The only difference is that once the easement is granted, the public has the security of knowing that this parcel of land will always be available for farming or open space.  

Additionally, unlike federal or state parks, easements are managed by private land trusts, at no additional cost to the taxpayer. The nation has some 1,700 of these organizations that manage these land trusts in all 50 states.  Many of these organizations go through an accreditation process to ensure that they can fulfill their duty to oversee the protection of the land put into their care into perpetuity.

There has never been a better window of opportunity to make the enhanced incentive permanent than right now. The bill in the House, H.R. 2807, has nearly enough co-sponsors to guarantee its passage. Political support for the Senate bill, S. 526, is quite strong as well. But this Congress has a very limited number of legislative days left before it adjourns for good.

There are very few issues before us today that are black and white.   But given the demographic projections of the U.S. population growth, what is crystal clear is that the time to increase the pace, quality and permanence of land conservation is now. By locking the enhanced incentive in place permanently, we can and will preserve farmland and open spaces for our progeny. Contact your elected officials and help make this happen.

By Rand Wentworth, President, Land Trust Alliance

The Alliance is a national conservation organization that works to save the places people love, and is based in Washington, D.C.   

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