On the increase: Conservation easements rise by 731 percent
A report released in late 2011 by the Land Trust Alliance shows that land conservation by nonprofit land trusts across the United States is thriving, with more than 10 million acres conserved from 2005 to 2010.
Land trusts in Wyoming contributed to this success, reporting an increase of 731 percent in acres conserved over this period.
According to Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust (WWNRT) Executive Director Bob Budd, that growth came about because of an increase in funding sources for conservation easement projects.
“I think the easements would have happened anyway, but when more funding sources became available they allowed some to happen sooner,” he says.
“I believe that, over the last five to seven years, there’s been a much greater common understanding between the ag community and the conservation community about how we can work together,” states The Nature Conservancy Wyoming State Director Andrea Erickson-Quiroz of the increase. “Easements are voluntary, and there have been more opportunities for agricultural families to explore conservation easements.”
Tax incentives encourage easements
Erickson-Quiroz says incentives for Wyoming’s traditional landowners have also increased during the time period from 2005 to present.
“Previously, tax incentives weren’t favorable for ranching families, and we didn’t have many resources to help landowners monetize the value by purchasing conservation easements,” she says.
However, those tax incentives remain a concern for some in Wyoming’s ag community, including Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Director Ken Hamilton.
“We have a tax code that encourages people to reduce the value of their estates, and conservation easements are the way to do it,” says Hamilton. “If we were to eliminate the death tax, I think that would change the incentives for people to move into conservation easements, and for those who have been going into them more as a way to reduce the value of their estates than out of their desire to have a conservation easement.”
Hamilton says it’s a public policy decision.
“I’d like to see those tax incentives changed, because they’re disincentives for our ag producers, who see the need to reduce their estates,” he states.
Before that happens, he says a critical mass needs to be reached, where large numbers of private lands are put into conservation easements.
“If there are just a few here and there, there’s not a concern, but when we start seeing larger numbers going into conservation easements, and the federal government moving into incentivizing conservation easements through more than just the IRS, then it’s time,” he explains.
IRS: perpetuity a must
Along with devaluing estates, another concern over conservation easements is the concept of perpetuity, which is required by the IRS to obtain the tax incentives.
“Perpetuity is not a choice we’re making,” says Erickson-Quiroz. “The ruling from the IRS requires perpetuity, and the funding that’s available today is focused on easements in perpetuity.”
She says she doesn’t think TNC is philosophically opposed to have a variety of tools available, such as conservation easements with shorter terms, but she says the funding and incentives for those is limited.
“There would have to be a change in the programs within the NRCS and the IRS to offer more flexibility and options,” she states. “The NRCS does have some term easements, so there are some possibilities, but there’s not much funding behind them.”
Wildlife trust helps increase funding
Erickson-Quiroz says an important example of increased funding for conservation easements in the state is through the WWNRT. Of the board, Budd says that it scrutinizes every project application it receives, including conservation easements.
“They’re pretty picky, picking and choosing what they feel comfortable funding,” says Budd.
“In general, the board likes to fund conservation easements because they only do them once – they don’t have to fund them again and again,” he continues. “They are regarded as a regulatory mechanism that can help preclude the listing of sage grouse, and that’s a major point.”
Sage grouse spur
“More recently we’ve gotten funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service that’s directed mostly at sage grouse, but it’s also benefitted habitat and many ranches,” says Erickson-Quiroz. “We’re able to do more now for a traditional landowner who would like to financially benefit from a conservation easement on their land.”
Budd says the board saw many applications for conservation easements in its last funding cycle, mainly because of sage grouse.
“There was a considerable amount of money that came from the NRCS, and the board funded 20 projects with easements in them,” notes Budd, saying that took about $7 million in funding, which went mostly to ag families.
Wyoming land trusts strengthen
Erickson-Quiroz adds that, through the passage of time, a stronger and more professional land trust community has emerged in Wyoming.
“Landowners have more options, and they can find a land trust that best suits their needs and their family’s interests,” she notes. “There’s more openness and comfort with conservation easements, and better incentives and more options for landowners in terms of the organizations with which they choose to work.”
Easements in the future
Of the continued growth of conservation easements in Wyoming, Erickson-Quiroz says her organization is stretched to capacity.
“Right now we have so many opportunities, and so many landowners have expressed interest,” she says. “Our limiting factor is how many funds we have available for landowners who want to purchase conservation easements. We’re at a place where we hope we can continue to generate more funding over time, but in its absence I don’t know how much we can grow.”
Of the WWNRT board, Budd says, “The board funds conservation easements with long-time ranching families who want to do them for the right reasons – to maintain our agricultural heritage and to have a long-term viable future for agriculture and for the habitat that it provides.”
In the future, Budd says he anticipates conservation easements will continue to be a part of applications for WWNRT funding, but he also expects a new wave of applications on a different subject.
“When we started, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a wetland project, and a couple years later everything was aspen and conifer encroachment, then river projects and sagebrush and now it’s easements,” he says. “It’s been interesting to watch this process over the life of the program, and we’ve seen priorities change and the funding changes along with it.”
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.