The Problems with Conservation Easements

George Wuerthner gives a thoughtful critique of conservation easements as a conservation strategy :

Why Cows Aren’t Always Worse Than Condos
The Problems with Conservation Easements

by George Wuerthner

5 Responses to “The Problems with Conservation Easements”

  1. TPageCO Says:

    Yes, this is a thoughtful piece on conservation easements, and I agree with most of what he writes, but there are several issues that should be noted:

    1) Wuerthner repeatedly switches the discussion between purchased easements and donated easements. Each have benefits and drawbacks, and this mixing makes it difficult for people not familiar with easements to understand the difference between the two. Many of the tax issues he mentions have no relevance on purchased easements. Leverage for the land trust is much greater on a purchased easement. Also, purchased easement programs are much more focused, as land trusts can choose those properties with greater conservation value.

    2) The appraisal process is outside the scope of the land trust’s work – on a donated easement that’s between the landowner and the IRS. To say that the deal won’t happen unless the appraisal is essentially predetermined is not necessarily true, in my experience. As for a purchased easement, it’s much like buying any property, when you do enough of ’em you get an idea of what it’s worth before any appraisal is done anyway.

    3) I’ve never seen any document that referred to a “working landscape” as a reason for an easement. As per the IRS, easements can be taken for several reasons, none of which has anything to do with “agricultural” or “working landscapes”. Words like this are a marketing tool, plain and simple.

    4) Planning and zoning is not a permanent solution. On a three person county commission, it only takes two yahoos to make a mess of things. I watched one property purchased with local government open space funds get developed ten years later when it was traded to another agency with an agreement (but alas no easement) to keep it open space…that agreement lasted only long enough for the new commissioners to void it.

    5) Conservation easements are cheaper than outright purchase, so to suggest that fee simple acquisition is compromised by easement purchases makes no sense. The conservation dollar goes farther, and the management costs are much less. Also, in my experience, the conservation values are maintained at a much higher level on those parcels under private ownership than those transferred to public agencies – where everyone rushes to hunt and fish and bike the place to death. After watching this happen a few times, I am not a supporter of private lands being transferred to public agencies unless there is a very well organized management plan.

    I wish Wuerthner had come up with a few specific examples or some harder numbers to make his case. It also seemed to me that he put the blame on the tool, when it really should be on the wielder (the land trust) and the maker (the government).

    Enough of my criticisms…

    I think his points on the long-term problem with easements are right on. I would go further and say that the biggest problem with easements is that they are crafted as “snapshots” of how the land is today. This may put severe restrictions on what we can do in 50 years. What happens if water delivery is only half of what it is now? What happens if ag completely disappears (possible)?

  2. Ryan Says:

    While he does bring up some valuable points, I find it laughable that he compares golf courses to wheat fields. Atleast on a wheat field it can be reverted to open prarie etc, condos and golf courses never are. Although there are problems with conversation easements, they are a better alternative to development. Open spaces are always better than development.

  3. Brian Ertz Says:

    a couple years ago there was a announcement in which Bush & Gale Norton celebrated the greatest increase in area of wetlands as compared to any other administration. Bush was a conservation hero.

    Of course, the ‘restoration’ which accounted for the significant increase in wetlands was entirely attributable to the administration’s new interpretation of what constitutes a ‘wetland’. golf course water traps are now considered ‘wetlands’ thanks to Bush’s new interpretation of that standard. when using the original standard of course, there has been a decrease in wetlands.

    this is analogous to the difficulty with conservation easements that Wuerthner describes ~ especially when these decisions are being made at the localized level in areas dominated by agricultural interests.

    in idaho, we saw an attempt to pass an ‘open-space’ initiative appropriating $3 million annually as tax credits for agricultural ‘open-space conservation’. The credits were sellable, the ‘easement’ was not held in perpetuity, and there was no biological standard with which to assure the wildlife value of a qualifying property. The dollars would be distributed by a board entirely appointed by the governor – 1/3 reps of agriculture, 1/3 reps of state., and 1/3 reps of ‘conservation’. etc. etc. etc.

    TNC had been lobbying fairly hard for the bill. I spent considerably time looking into it, making phone calls, speaking with reps. etc. The local dems. readily admitted that there was minimal ‘conservation’ value to the bill, but insisted that there was a ‘custom & culture’ preservation element at least one found appealing.

    Long story short – the bill failed, where’s the $3 million going to come from ? Bottom line – we have to be sure that these efforts keep wildlife and habitat values front and foremost. Strange mutations of easements are being used as just another subsidy.

  4. TPageCO Says:

    Brian-

    Without an easement in perpetuity, this kind of bill is nothing more than a land-banking mechanism designed to reduce a landowner tax bill. Sellable credits are not a bad idea, provided you have the other two parts in place – biological standards and permanence.

  5. Brian Ertz Says:

    TPageCO –

    it is good the bill failed – though it will be pressed again, perhaps it will be an opportunity to educate the ‘deciders’ – it seems like many are not aware of many important things. the administration of conservation easements in particular counties has also been a problem, a political problem.


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