A call for modest reform

by Paul Larmer

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read a heartwarming story in our local newspaper about a conservation easement deal that is saving some important chunk of the West from the subdivider’s bulldozer. The typical story features the landowner, usually a longtime farmer or rancher, who waxes eloquent about the importance of the land to the family, and how they couldn’t bring themselves to sell it off to the developers. Instead, they’ve decided to keep the land intact forever by donating an easement to the local land trust.

But there’s more to these stories than we read in the papers. Generally left out are any hard numbers detailing the financial terms of the deal. That information, as Ray Ring reports in this issue, is not available to the public, and might surprise most people if it were. Landowners donating conservation easements can make out remarkably well with the federal tax breaks alone, especially if they have large incomes. At the same time, they can enjoy the payoff of the West’s booming real estate markets, by retaining the right to sell lots or build homes on portions of their land, or by selling the entire property to a wealthy "conservation buyer."

In an era of regulatory restraint and limited public funding, it’s not surprising that private-land conservation in the West has become wedded to high-end real estate development and large tax write-offs. But there are problems with a system that is so private, and yet still subsidized by the public. As Jeff Pidot, a researcher with the Lincoln Land Policy Institute in Massachusetts, points out, tax breaks for some landowners merely shift the tax burden onto the rest of us.

That isn’t to say that conservation easements are a waste of taxpayer money. They have become one of the most powerful and well-used tools in the conservationist’s toolbox. If Congress greatly limits their use, as it is contemplating, the bulldozers will soon be carving up the rest of the West with reckless abandon.

But the public should be able to know what it is getting from its investment. It should be able to trust the appraisal process that sets the value of an easement; it should have confidence that important wildlife habitat is truly being protected; and where possible, it should retain access through easements to rivers and public lands.

The tax laws that allow easements can also be modified to make them more appealing to cash-poor ranchers and farmers. A good start would be to allow landowners to take tax deductions over 15 or 20 years, as opposed to the current six years. That way they can reap more of the financial value of their easements even if they have small incomes.

The time is ripe for moderate reform of the easement system to prevent the most egregious abuses and restore trust. In the long run, a course adjustment now will only strengthen a movement that is of vital importance to the West.

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