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Protecting our environment has never been more important and a common way this is being ensured is through land donations for conservation use.
To donate land for conservation, a property owner must go through an appraisal process that determines the environmental value of their land. If the land has significant environmental value, the appraiser places a conservation easement on the land, which permanently protects it from development.
The United States government has already put millions of acres of land under strict conservation guidelines throughout the country. However, so much of our lands that have environmental value are still in the hands of private property owners. As conservation easements have become more popular, landowners are taking it upon themselves to donate their land for conservation use. They do this not only for the sake of protecting the environment but also for the financial benefits that can come with it.
The United States Department of Agriculture, as well as the Wilderness Society, highly encourage the donation of private properties for land conservation. The property conversion process is handled by either the Energy and Environmental Affairs or by a non-profit land trust organization.
With a country as large as the United States that has so much biodiversity and differing landscapes, the donation process can vary depending on the type of land you own. Most land trusts and government organizations that handle the appraisal process typically have a similar set of criteria when assessing the environmental value of your property.
The process can become slightly more complicated if the owner of the land has certain specifications for the conversion of their private property into conservation land. It’s common that the landowner may want to keep certain rights to their land that go against the standards and restrictions that their land trust or appraisal organization put in place on the property.
Since the primary reason for land conservation is to protect the environment, a bulk of restrictions associated with development generally come with the donation of the property. Some landowners have attachments to development projects that defy conservation guidelines, which results in a halted or complicated transition.
The best way to hold on to certain developmental rights for your land is to work with a trust that meets your specifications. To achieve this, you must find a land trust that is correlated with the vision you have for your land and can agree on a mutually beneficial outcome for the conservation easement. On the other hand, landowners who are flexible with their property tend to have a very smooth donation process.
Let’s dive into the steps you need to take to donate your land for conservation.
Finding a Trust
The first and most important thing you need to do to donate your land for conservation is to choose a trust that you like. As mentioned above, each trust has a similar donation process and value system but the devil is in the details.
You should take the time to research a trust properly and make sure that you see eye to eye before relinquishing your rights to your land. With numerous choices available across different non-profits and our own government, you have quite a bit of options to choose from.
Here are some recognized land trust organizations to get you started:
- Energy and Environmental Affairs
- Land Trust Alliance
- The Nature Conservancy
- The Trust For Public Land
- American Farmland Trust
- The Trustees Of Reservations
All of these trusts have a similar goal in mind, which is to conserve and protect lands that have environmental value. As you decide which trust is right for you should consider a couple of factors.
Your decision to donate your land for conservation must stem from some sort of desire to help the environment and protect your land. While this is an extremely noble thing to do, you may want to acknowledge what the end result of your donation will amount to.
If you have the ambition to simply protect the land and leave it undisturbed, choosing a trust will be pretty hassle-free, as your intentions are in line with the ideology of most funds.
However, if you have plans for specific future developments and want to retain certain rights to your land, you should choose carefully and do thorough research on the guidelines of each trust.
A great place to start when choosing a trust is to self-evaluate the characteristics of the land you own and choosing an organization that specializes in your type of land.
To do so, analyze the conservation value that you think your land has in relation to your local environment. If you are living in an area that is full of wildlife and may be classified as critical habitat, choosing a trust that specializes in this type of conservation will likely result in a smoother donation process and will ensure a sense of security for the long-term use of the land.
On the other hand, if you are living on land that may be classified as farmland with abundant soil, a farm-associated trust will be a more logical approach for picking a trust. However, some donors prefer not to deal with private land trusts and instead opt for donating with a governmental organization that specializes in general conservation easements such as the Energy and Environmental Affairs.
A major reason that property owners choose to donate their land for conservation use is the tax incentives that come with them. These tax breaks can result in huge savings for the landowner but at the price of significantly lowering the cost value of the property itself.
The tax incentives that come with the donation of conservation lands are determined by the overall environmental value of the land, as well as the state you live in.
To get an idea of what kind of tax breaks you can expect to get for your donation, you should check to see what kind of benefits your local state offers in relation to the trust you are considering dealing with.
Once you have selected a potential trust for your donation, you will likely have a phone interview with a representative of your trust where you discuss the environmental qualities of your property.
During this phone interview, the trust will get an overview of your land to determine its initial value and whether the property is worthy of being established as conservation land. If your land meets the initial qualifications, the appraisal process will continue.
The most critical part of your donation process will be the environmental inspection conducted by the land appraiser of your trust.
Your trust will dispatch a representative to analyze the environmental qualities and value of your property to determine what sort of conservation restrictions to place on the land. The appraiser will assess the following qualities during the process:
- Habitat - if your land is home to a variety of species that are dependent on a local habitat for survival, this will be a critical feature of your conservation land. The donation will be particularly valued if your property has endangered or at-risk habitats and species.
- Freshwater- lands that have access to streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and wetlands will be highly valued for conservation use. Especially if they are connected to a local habitat or are utilized by a local community.
- Soil fertility - lands that have healthy and fertile soil for food production will also be highly valued, as the goal of many trusts is to protect fertile lands for future crop growing.
If your property is found to have significant environmental value in any of the above-mentioned features, you will likely qualify for a conservation easement.
During the inspection, the appraiser will be compiling a report based on the qualities of your land, which details the overall environmental value, as well as the condition of the land itself.
The report will be assessed further by the board of the trust to determine what sort of guidelines and restrictions will be placed on the conservation land. If your donated land has complex environmental qualities such as endangered habitat or highly valued resources on it, the process of creating a final report may take some time.
If your property is relatively straightforward as far as environmental qualities, the report is finalized much quicker and generally has easier guidelines to adhere to in the long run.
Once the board has properly analyzed your property, they will create a finalized report for your review, which results in a contracted agreement between the trust and the donor.
The final step for donating your land for conservation use will be to sign a contract agreement created by the trust.
This step is highly important and you should make sure you are fully aware of all restrictions you are agreeing to. Before signing, it would be wise to have a lawyer look over the contract to confirm that all guidelines are correlated with your desired rights to the property.
If all is in order, simply signing the contract will finalize the donation of your land for conservation use.