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Spotlight on Conservation Easements

Ricardo Bayon, Amanda Hawn and Adam Davis

A silent revolution has taken place in environmental circles throughout the United States. Historically, conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy bought land in order to conserve it. Over the last two decades, however, there has been a steady shift in strategy: today, more and more land trusts are retiring the right to develop the land–through a binding legal contract known as a conservation easement–rather than buying the land itself.

A silent revolution has taken place in environmental circles throughout the United States. Historically, conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy bought land in order to conserve it. Over the last two decades, however, there has been a steady shift in strategy: today, more and more land trusts are retiring the right to develop the land–through a binding legal contract known as a conservation easement–rather than buying the land itself.


A Skeptic's Perspective on Voluntary Conservation Easements

by John D. Echeverria Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute In an article written especially for the Ecosystem Marketplace, John D. Echeverria, the Executive Director of the Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute, explains why he thinks conservation easements are a relatively ineffective and financially wasteful way of pursuing conservation goals in the United States. > Go to Article


A Constructive Reformist's Perspective on Voluntary Conservation Easements

by Nancy A. McLaughlin University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law In an article written especially for the Ecosystem Marketplace, Nancy A. McLaughlin, an expert on the legal issues surrounding easements, argues that conservation easements, with some reforms, can be a relatively efficient and effective means of pursuing conservation goals in the United States. > Go to Article


Conservation easements are designed to protect land from development permanently while allowing for historic forms of property use to continue unfettered. Easements have been used for a variety of purposes in the United States – to conserve valuable ecosystems, to buffer national parks, and to protect a rural way of life. In recognition of their public value, Congress made easement donations tax-deductible in 1976, and state revenue collectors have continued to sweeten the pot ever since. In a political climate wary of government regulation, federal and state tax incentives have become an increasingly popular means of achieving bottom-up land conservation. The Land Trust Alliance (LTA) now estimates that 800,000 acres a year are being protected from further development, double the amount of acreage saved just five years ago. Part of this surge is due to a profitable, emerging market in transferable tax credits. With limits in the amount of tax credits a donor can use in one fiscal year, states such as Colorado and Virginia passed legislation in 2002 to create a secondary market in tax credits, allowing land-rich donors to sell tax credits for cash (read more on easements and tradable tax credits). In Virginia alone, the estimated property value placed under easements rose from $22.3 million to $187.3 million within two years of the transferability legislation taking effect. Similarly, easement donations tripled in Colorado during the same period, and the non-profit Colorado Tax Credit Exchange jumped from $700,000 in trades in 2001 to $16.5 million in 2004. For the state as a whole, nearly $36 million traded in tax credits in 2004. Recently, the growing use of conservation easements has led to controversy. Some argue that easements are not the best way to achieve conservation, that they are overly expensive, ineffective, or both. Others allege that the use of tax credits for easements has become rife with fraud and abuse. As a result of such allegations, the US Congress has launched an ongoing investigation into the use of easements and easement-related tax credits across the country; an investigation that could eventually lead to some radical changes in the way easements are used and even, some worry, to their demise. For a background article on the congressional debate see "Conservation Easements and Tax Reform: Can land trusts survive the scrutiny?" At the Ecosystem Marketplace, we believe that the current debate surrounding easements will not only help determine the face of conservation in the US during the 21st Century, but also will be a harbinger of things to come for conservation around the world. And so, to further a global discussion about the use of easements, we asked two US experts on the subject–one pro and one con–to go Face-to-Face on the issue. Our question: Are conservation easements an efficient and fair means of paying for ecosystem services in the United States? John Echeverria and Nancy McLaughlin respond. Let the discussion begin.

Conservation Easements and Tax Reform: Can land trusts survive the scrutiny?

by John Andrulis with reporting by Amanda Hawn Conservation easements have become an increasingly popular means of paying for the ecosystem services associated with undeveloped land. Generally, easements, which restrict the future development of a piece of land, are purchased by land trusts directly from landowners or are donated by landowners in exchange for federal and state tax-deductions. Recent abuses of this system have led to calls for reform from tax officials and environmentalists alike. The Ecosystem Marketplace surveys the controversy and consensus surrounding the use of conservation easements in the United States. > Go to Article

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