By Rand Wentworth

Have you ever found yourself looking at a shimmering wheat field or pristine patch of woodlands being bulldozed for a strip mall or a convenience store, wondering where future generations of Americans will grow their food or if their children will be able to take a walk in the woods?

Many Americans have become increasingly alarmed about the rapid loss of farmland in this country and the fragmentation of natural environments.  And they should be concerned.  The United States is losing farm, ranch and forest land at an alarming rate, with more than 2 million acres of land lost every year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In fact, current rates and patterns of land consumption, if left unchecked, will result in wide-scale loss of the special natural places we need and love within the next 20 years.

Thankfully, in 2006 Congress passed a tax law that allows many landowners who weren’t previously able to benefit from donating an easement – especially owners of farms, ranches and forestland – to donate the future development rights of their property in exchange for a limited tax benefit.  These agreements are known as conservation easements.   

Land trust easements are public-private partnerships that combine the charity of landowners and the oversight of volunteer organizations with limited federal tax benefits from the federal government.  In the case of farmland, the easements can remain in production but are kept safe from future development.  Americans have embraced the idea, enrolling a million acres a year into these conservation easements.   

In fact, since the tax law was enacted in 2006, easement donations have increased by 35 percent, with great potential to grow even further.

In the past, those wishing to preserve our natural heritage would have been forced to try and turn some of these tracts of lands into national parks.  This is not only expensive, but also relatively difficult to do.  By contrast, valuable land can be rolled into an easement for a fraction of the cost of buying it, making easements by far the most cost-effective approach to land conservation.

And instead of creating another piece of land that has to be supervised and maintained by the federal government, land trust easements are monitored by volunteer-based organizations in each state.  There are nearly 1,700 of these organizations 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.

According to the 2010 National Land Census, 47 million acres are now being conserved by land trusts, an increase of roughly 10 million acres since 2005.  To put that into perspective, that’s an area twice the size of all national parks in contiguous United States put together.  Because of this, millions of Americans have been able to enjoy this nation’s natural beauty.

But the future growth and continued success of these land trusts and their ability to continue to attract new donations from landowners is under threat because the tax benefit that has made much of this success possible expires at the end of the year.  The lapse of this incentive in 2012 led to the loss of hundreds of potential donations of lands with important natural, agricultural and historic values.   

An on-again, off-again incentive makes it very difficult to educate and encourage potential land donors to enter a conservation easement program, which is a lengthy and expensive process and can cost an individual between $10,000 - $50,000 because of the care and documentation required to make this donation work.  It’s difficult for landowners to donate what is perhaps their largest monetary asset – the future development rights of their lands – if the threat of the end of the tax incentive is constantly looming.  

It’s for that reason that the Land Trust Alliance is pushing Congress to make the land trust easement tax benefit permanent.  There are bills in Congress with strong bipartisan support – H.R. 2807 and S. 526, respectively – that would make that idea the law of the land.  And the long list of organizations supporting the idea grows daily.

By making our commitment to landowners to use easements permanent, we’ll be opening the door to many more donations and ensuring space enough for food production and wildlife for generations to come.  The commitment to conservation, and the tax law that makes this form of conservation possible, should both be permanent.

Rand Wentworth is the president of the 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.