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Land trusts and conservation easements are two of the most important ways land conservation happens, but it’s important to understand how they’re used and how they differ.
Conservation easements are a legal agreement signed by a landowner to prevent land from being developed for conservation purposes. Land trusts are organizations that work to obtain land for conservation purposes. In conservation easements, rights to development are signed over to a land trust.
Land conservation protects wildlife and natural spaces from development, preserving biodiversity and maintaining essential ecosystem services that we rely on as humans. Since so much of this land is privately owned, it’s important to explore avenues that allow the conservation of these lands without requiring the lands be made public. This article will explore the role of conservation easements in making this happen, as well as what land trusts are and how they fit into these goals.
As I’ve learned in my studies of environmental policy, there are a wide range of laws and regulations that impact wildlife. Understanding how land is conserved through both public and private means is something that is essential to understanding how conservation organizations operate.
What Is A Conservation Easement?
Conservation easements can either take the form of a donation or a sale, but involve a legal agreement that permanently prevents private land from being developed. In signing, the owner of the land gives up the right to build certain structures or pursue certain types of developments, but still owns the land.
Since conservation easements happen ‘in perpetuity’, future owners of the same land will be held to the same agreement the landowner has signed. Whether the land is passed down to an heir or sold to another private owner, the terms of the easement must still be followed.
Conservation easements are signed between the landowner and a government agency or land trust, who ‘hold’ the rights to develop without actually doing anything with them. Therefore, the land is protected and the rights to develop it in certain ways essentially do not exist anymore.
The exact terms of the easement are generally tailored to be the most beneficial to the conservation of the land without significantly impacting the owner. For example, landowners can actually use a conservation easement to prevent their farmland from being residentially developed.
Conservation easements lower the value of the land since it is no longer able to be developed on, but this can actually be beneficial to the landowner. Conservation easements can lower taxes either by lowering the value of the property below the threshold for estate taxes or by qualifying for certain exclusions.
Conservation easements are used only to conserve private lands, or lands that are not owned by any government. Private lands are an extremely important part of land conservation in the US and many are still ‘productive’. For example, private lands supply us with 90% of US-grown forest products like timber and firewood.
In order to avoid landowners getting unnecessary tax breaks for their land, there are other qualifications that must be met for a conservation easement. A real estate appraisal must be done on the property in order to correctly determine the fair market value before the easement is finished.
In addition, the landowner must certify that their property will serve a purpose of contributing to conservation efforts. It must protect a natural ecosystem or area, be in accordance with government conservation policies, protect a recreational area, or protect a historic area.
Just like with conservation easements, historic easements allow a landowner to retain rights over their property while protecting the property and surrounding area that are of historic significance. Historic properties are places listed in the National Register of Historic Places or that have been determined to have historical significance by a local preservation authority.
Limitations of a conservation easement might depend on what perspective you are looking at it from. For the landowner, the lowered value of land could be seen as a significant limitation of an easement, since present and future value of the land will be affected. While an easement lowers taxes, this lowered value could make the property difficult to sell, especially since potential future owners may not want to have development restrictions. Landowners may also have to pay some legal fees during the formation of an easement.
From a conservation perspective, easements are generally beneficial but could have limitations depending on the needs of the landowner. For example, a landowner could use a conservation easement to protect the ability to grow crops on their land. This might not fulfill conservation needs first and foremost, but it does protect the land from potentially more detrimental activities.
Conservation easements are also voluntary agreements, so if a private landowner doesn’t have the desire to conserve their land, it may be difficult for conservationists to compete with the pull of selling their land to potential development interests.
What Is A Land Trust?
Now that we’ve covered what a conservation easement is, the difference between the easement and the land trust makes a bit more sense. A land trust is the organization that I mentioned above who takes over the development rights of a landowner in a conservation easement. Land trusts, however, can take different forms and have different objectives.
Land trusts are separate from the government, but oftentimes work with the government in acquiring land or researching conservation needs. They are nonprofit organizations that work to better the communities they operate in.
Conservation Land Trust
In the case of a conservation easement, a conservation land trust is a nonprofit organization acting to preserve land as close to its natural state as possible, and acquires the conservation easement. Conservation land trusts have the intention of preventing development and preserving lands including wildlife, productive farms, or forests.
These organizations will either work with private owners to accept a land donation, or will purchase the property from the owner in order to protect it from development. Depending on the situation, land owned by a conservation land trust may be open to the public or used as a wildlife preserve.
Conservation land trusts usually work in a specific region or community, such as the Hawai’i Land Trust, which works to preserve land on the Hawaiian islands through conservation easements as well as stewardship and education. Many land trust organizations do not only work to obtain land and conservation easements, but also manage lands, run conservation campaigns, do education work, and maintain wildlife and recreation areas.
Community Land Trust
Similar to conservation land trusts, community land trusts are another type of nonprofit organization which aims to preserve land. However, community land trusts work for the well-being of a community as opposed to being driven by conservation purposes.
Community land trusts work in specific areas and hold lands for things like gardens, affordable housing, and other community spaces. These types of trusts are led by a board, staff, and community members in order to ensure the land trust is fulfilling the needs of the specific community they work in.
When used to protect housing prices in low-income or underserved communities, community land trusts protect homeowners from the cost of the land by allowing them to buy housing for the price of the home only. They lease the land to the homeowner in what is usually a long-term lease. The land trust also requires homeowners also agree that they will sell their home for an affordable price, while taking appreciation into account.
Title-Holding Land Trust
Another type of land trust you might hear about are ‘title-holding’ trusts, which allow the landowner to retain rights anonymously over their land. Landowners sign the legal ownership of their property over to a trust, which retains the title to the property on paper. This allows the property owner to keep their land out of a will, keep development plans secret (in cases where the landowner is a company), or protect the identity of celebrities or wealthy individuals who own the property.