Easing into Conservat Conservation easements provide a win-win for landowners â€” tax benefits today and conservation benefits for future generations. by Bruce Ingram
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In 1964, I had an experience that changed my life. My grandfather and I had gone to visit a relative in Franklin County, Virginia, where my family settled in the 1700s. After the outing, my granddad stopped at a subdivision along the highway. “This used to be the Ingram family farm and it was around a thousand acres,” he told me. “We used to be landed people, and we’re not anymore.” At those words, my grandfather began to cry, and I felt compelled to comfort him. “We’ll have land again one day, I promise,” I replied. “I’ll save my money and buy us land.” It was a bold promise from a 12-year-old whose family lived on a half-acre lot in the suburbs, but I became obsessed with fulfilling my pledge to my grandfather. The sense that my family had lost something quite precious was very strong. I began saving part of my school lunch money every day. One of the reasons I became an outdoor writer was to set up a “land account” with most of the money I earned from that profession. My wife Elaine and I devoted our school teacher
all photos courtesy of bruce ingram
tion salaries to “getting by” with the hope that my writing income could be used to purchase rural land on which we could live, fish, hunt, bird, and raise our children. Our first opportunity came in 1984, when a 30-acre tract on Johns Creek in Craig County, Virginia, came up for sale at a price of $800 per acre. My parents argued vehemently against the purchase, claiming that no rural land could ever be worth such an exorbitant price. My grandfather, though, took my side and gave me his blessing, which was enough for me to go ahead and buy the land. Five years later, I had earned enough from my stories to purchase another
rural parcel in Botetourt County, Virginia, where we built a house that my family still lives in today. In 1997, I came across an ad one day for a 137-acre mountainous tract that lies in Craig County and Monroe County, West Virginia. The property was available for $79,500, and once again my parents were opposed to what they considered an extravagant purchase. (They even maintained that premise when two weeks after I bought the land, a hunt club offered me $110,000 for it.) But I knew that my grandfather, who had died two years earlier, would have approved of the acquisition. It was then that I became haunted with fears relating to my family’s past. What had caused my ancestors to lose their family farm? And, more importantly, how could I ensure that if some future Ingram was foolish enough to sell the land I had worked so hard to obtain, the property would not end up like that Franklin County subdivision granddad showed me? I found an answer to that second question in conservation easements.
Customized Conservation A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust, local government agency, or other appropriate organization to permanently protect the scenic and natural qualities of a piece of land. The landowner retains all ownership rights to the land. The role of the land trust or other agency is simply to ensure the landowner follows through with his or her commitment to protect the land. In return, the landowner may receive tax credits or other benefits. All future landowners — whether they inherit or purchase the property — must follow the restrictions set to protect the land. “When a land trust considers a landowner’s request to put a property under easement, the land trust takes an inventory of all the conservation values that the property might have — in other words, whatever makes the property special,” says Roger Holnback, executive director of the Western Virginia Land Trust. “Properties that feature rare habitats, plants, or animals; headwater springs or streams; trout streams; and scenic views are great candidates for easements THE IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE OF AMERICA | OUTDOOR AMERICA | SPRING 2011 | 25
and certainly would add to an area’s overall quality of life.” In general, conservation easements: Place restrictions on a property to protect its “resources” and “values.” These resources often include natural habitat, riparian zones, and water quality; historical features; scenic viewsheds (natural environments visible from one or more viewing points); and open spaces. “Values” can include fishing, hunting, timber stand improvement, and agriculture. Limit certain types of uses or prevent development from taking place, tailored to an individual landowner’s requests. With advice and consent from a land trust or other agency, land owners specify in an easement what types of development can and cannot take place on their land in the future. For example, a landowner might request that nothing ever be done to the land to negatively affect wildfowl migration
Protect land for future generations but still permit current and future owners to retain property rights and to live on and use their land. A conservation easement permits — and may even encourage — responsible use of the land. For example, according to the agreement I reached with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and Western Virginia Land Trust (which co-hold my easement), I can build one house on the Sinking Creek property and can also conduct habitat improvement projects. In 2009, I did some timber stand improvement and a 7-acre clearcut, which will eventually become a deer bedding ground, turkey nesting area, and (I hope) a ruffed grouse hot spot. Provide landowners with potential tax benefits. Conservation easement landowners are entitled to federal tax benefits, which come in the form of income tax deductions. Because easements limit development, an appraisal is done at
routes. I know of one landowner who decreed that his woodlot be allowed to become an old growth forest and that agricultural practices should be allowed to continue. In 2006, I purchased a 120-acre tract in the Sinking Creek Valley of Virginia’s Craig County. The stream contains the headwaters of Sinking Creek, an important tributary of the New River. In my conservation easement, I voluntarily placed a restriction that no logging, building, or other development could ever take place in the stream’s riparian zone. After I bought the land, I learned that it features a rare plant community at its peak. Wanting to protect the plants and the viewshed, I placed a restriction against any type of development on the mountaintop.
the time of the “gift” of the easement to capture the reduction in the property value. That reduction in value is treated as a special charitable gift by the IRS and by most states. As a result, after the Sinking Creek easement was recorded, we received tax refunds of nearly $14,000 from the federal and state governments based on our income tax deductions for this donation. The lowered value of the land can significantly reduce local property taxes as well. When we set our first conservation easement, Elaine and I had no idea that our county taxes would drop by 20 percent. The land may be worth less to developers, but to Ikes, of course, the property is worth more for its conservation value!
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Monitoring Conservation Part of the responsibility of a land trust or other agency “holding” a conservation easement is to monitor the property to ensure easement conditions are followed by the landowner — whether that’s the original owner, a family member who inherited the property, or someone who bought the land with the easement already in place. (For example, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation periodically asks me for dates they can visit the properties I have under easement so they can make sure I am in compliance with those easements.) If a condition of the easement is broken, the holding organization can take legal action. These monitoring activities benefit both the landowner and the local community. Holnback gives the example of an easement the Western Virginia Land Trust recently monitored in which the original “donor” passed the property
property,” Holnback says. “But if a landowner wants to put cattle on his land, he would be expected to maintain fenced buffers around any stream that the livestock could enter. And if someone wanted to harvest timber, he would be required to follow best management practices.” A major plus of conservation easements is that they can improve the larger outdoor community. One such example, says Ben Lucas, stewardship coordinator for the National Committee for the New River — a land trust in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia — is removal of invasive species. “Let’s say that a land trust staffer finds some invasive plants on the land when he visits for monitoring or otherwise. The staffer can tell the landowner how he can get rid of the problem himself, contact an agency such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for assistance, or organize volunteers to help control the problem.
Ben Lucas, stewardship coordinator for the National Committee for the New River, explains the tax benefits to landowners of conservation easements.
on to his two daughters. “The daughters had just been contacted by the highway department and been asked to give up an additional 35 feet of their property along more than a half mile of their farm for a road improvement project,” he says. The problem was that the land was under a conservation easement. “We were able to intercede early in the process,” says Holnback, “avoiding an inappropriate sale or a taking by the highway department, and negotiated a much better outcome for the landowner while protecting the property.” Such monitoring can also help landowners remain in compliance when their needs change. “For example, an easement’s language won’t say that a landowner has to maintain fenced buffers along every stream if no livestock exist on the
nF ederal income tax deduction for qualified conservation contributions. A federal income tax deduction can be taken for donated conservation easements that meet the deduction criteria. The value of the deduction must be determined by a qualified appraisal. The federal income tax deduction is limited to 50 percent of the donor’s Adjusted Gross Income in the donation year. If the value of the easement exceeds the donor’s 50 percent deduction in the first year, the donor can carry forward the remaining balance for up to 15 additional years. Additionally, qualified farmers and ranchers can deduct up to 100 percent of their income. nE state tax incentives. The heirs of landowners who donated a conservation easement can exclude an additional 40 percent of the remaining taxable value of the land up to $500,000. The family must have owned the land for at least three years prior to the landowner’s death. The land trust community is working to expand the estate tax incentives. nS tate tax benefits vary. For example, Virginia offers a Land Preservation Tax Credit for 40 percent of the value of donated land or conservation easement (determined by a qualified appraisal). Unused state income tax credits can be sold, “allowing individuals with little or no Virginia income tax burden to take advantage of this benefit.” North Carolina offers a conservation tax credit for easement donations equal to 25 percent of the fair market value of interest in land donated (determined by a qualified appraisal).
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I know of land trusts that arranged for student or Scout volunteers to remove kudzu and other invasives from properties under easement.” Sound familiar? The work done through conservation easements is often similar to what Izaak Walton League chapters do on their own lands and in their communities. “The values that the Izaak Walton League holds are the same as those that land trusts want to uphold and typically have the responsibility to uphold on the properties under easement,” says Lucas. He encourages Ikes to consider conservation easements on the land they own or lease or that their chapters own.
Conservation Partners Your local land trust can be a valuable partner in local conservation efforts. To locate the land trust nearest you, contact the Land Trust Alliance (www.landtrustalliance.org), a national nonprofit representing more than 1,700 land trusts across the country. The organization’s Web site includes an interactive map with contact information for local land trusts. Staff from your local land trust can walk you through all the options for which the chapter’s land or your personal property qualify. “If your intent is conservation, speak to your local land trust,” urges Holnback. “They will give you un biased information on opportunities in your area, including tax credits and incentive programs.” Although League chapters may not be able to take advantage of the federal tax benefits conservation easements provide, several states
— Colorado, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Virginia — do allow landowners to transfer (sell) unused state tax credits to an unrelated taxpayer. That means that League chapters in these states may be able to get cash for a percentage of tax savings associated with a conservation easement on chapter property, subject to individual state laws. Research by the Conservation Resource Center shows what a powerful incentive this system is to encourage landowners to implement conservation easements. The group studied participation in Virginia and found that since the state implemented the tax credit transfer program, the number of acres protected by conservation easements in the state tripled in just four years. League chapters could also partner with their local land trusts on strategic conservation plans for their communities. Many land trusts manage conservation buyer programs through which they find conservation-minded people to whom they can sell properties with easements on them, says Rob Aldrich, communications director for the Land Trust Alliance. By working together to achieve conservation goals, League chapters and local land trusts can take steps that benefit both organizations and the broader community. In addition to a conservation focus, the Land Trust Alliance and its partners share the Izaak Walton League’s commitment to engaging youth in the outdoors and building a conservation ethic. “Children who are exposed to an enriched experience with nature grow into voters who support conservation and conservation easements,” says Aldrich. “Voters who feel strong connections with open space know that these wild places are just as important to the well-being of the community as the local fire station and school. They want a place for their kids to connect with nature and enjoy outdoor recreation. We want people to feel that their connection to nature is just as important as their other fundamental rights.”
Balancing Private Ownership with Public Good One of the misconceptions about conservation easements is that an easement allows the public onto to someone’s private property. “Every landowner retains the right to post his 28 | SPRING 2011 | OUTDOOR AMERICA | THE IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE OF AMERICA
property and restrict access or, if he chooses, let certain people or the general public on it,” explains Holnback. Although private land under easement remains private, both Lucas and Holnback stress that the public gains from the property’s changed status. “The public benefits when an easement helps keep a farm a farm, clean water clean, a viewshed intact, and wildlife corridors protected,” says Lucas, an avid angler and hunter. “For example, one of my favorite places to trout fish is downstream from a property under easement that has pristine springs and feeder streams flowing through it. A major reason why the lower reaches of the stream are so good to fish is because the land under easement upstream has a strict clause that protects the stream’s headwaters.” “Two of the biggest problems facing hunting today are habitat fragmentation and the loss of wildlife corridors,” Lucas adds. “Easements help alleviate both problems. A hunter going afield on land next to property under a conservation easement would definitely have a better chance at success than if that easement had never been created and the land was lost to development.” Hunters and anglers are not the only outdoor enthusiasts who benefit from conservation easements. My Sinking Creek land borders the Appalachian Trail, and the mountaintop scenic view protection and one-house clause that I placed on the land surely make the act of walking past my parcel aesthetically pleasing and increase the enjoyment of nature for people on the trail.
Last Words In 2002, the 150-acre tract next to my parcel on Potts Mountain came up for sale. Both properties had once been part of a farm that was abandoned during the Great Depression. Once again I remembered my grandfather’s words, and I did not hesitate to buy the land. Soon after the purchase, I placed the land under easement. Several years later, I was able to locate the descendants of the farm’s former owners, and they were thrilled that I had reassembled — and placed under easement — the old home place. I even arranged for them to revisit the site of the now dilapidated farmhouse — a very emotional moment for all of us.
f o r Acc e s s
Government budgets have tightened at the local, state, and national levels. One way government agencies are cutting expenses is by moving away from land acquisition for public use and relying increasingly on conservation easements to protect natural resources and fish and wildlife habitat. Between 2005 and 2010, total acreage conserved by local, state, and national land trusts doubled to 37 million acres — an area roughly the size of New England. “What little land is being set aside in Virginia right now is often through conservation easements,” says author and League life member Bruce Ingram. “Virginia added 2,000 acres of public land in 2010, and we felt lucky to get that.” Conservation easements are important tools to protect natural resources. However, land set aside through conservation easements is still private land — and landowners decide exactly how they want to use that land. Those pristine woods or babbling stream may have a “No Trespassing” sign. Some landowners are happy to allow hunters and anglers to use their property — after agreeing to some ground rules. However, a large-scale shift away from land acquisition for public use will
have consequences for hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts who are not guaranteed access to lands with easements. “In the future, it’s going to be conservation easements or nothing in a lot of states,” predicts Ingram. “Ideally, we’d have both public lands and easements.” He suggests that state residents speak out about the need for more public land. In addition, he points to West Virginia’s conservation stamp model as another way to boost acquisition of public lands. “If you want to hunt or fish in West Virginia, you have to buy a conservation stamp. Every dollar goes either to a shooting range or to purchase land. It’s a tremendous accomplishment!” Ingram says he’s like most land owners when it comes to allowing hunters on his land. “If you ask for permission to hunt on my land, sometimes I will and sometimes I won’t. One of the guys hunting on my land right now is helping me build my chicken coop. That is how rural land owners operate.” The first step is to ask. And talk with your state and local representatives about the importance of public land on which every citizen can experience and enjoy the outdoors. — Dawn Merritt, IWLA
My two children share such conservation values and are grateful to be, as my grandfather said, “landed.” But if some future descendant is not a conservationist, or if the land ever is sold outside the family, we still have the comfort of knowing that the conservation easements are permanently in effect and will benefit generations of outdoors enthusiasts and the wild world itself. I know that my grandfather would have been proud. — Bruce Ingram is a life member of the Izaak Walton League. He has written four books on river smallmouth bass fishing and writes a weekly blog on the outdoors at www.bruceingramoutdoors.com.
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