A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. A conservation easement allows landowners to continue to own and use their land and to sell it or pass it on to heirs, while preserving it. It is the most widely-used way to permanently protect private land.
A conservation easement is a great option for landowners who want to preserve wildlife habitat and the wild character of their land, while maintaining ownership. Future owners will also be bound by the easement’s terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed.
When a landowner donates any kind of conservation easement to a land trust, s/he gives up some of the rights associated with the land. In a forever-wild easement, the landowner generally gives up the rights to build structures and roads, subdivide, conduct commercial or industrial activities, farm, and cut timber. Landowners generally retain the rights to use the land for non-motorized, non-mechanized recreation and to post the land against public use, including hunting. Conservation easements offer flexibility, however, and the Northeast Wilderness Trust works closely with landowners to craft an easement that best suits the land and the landowner’s goals.
The Northeast Wilderness Trust, in accepting a conservation easement, agrees to monitor and enforce the terms of the easement in perpetuity. The Trust prepares a baseline documentation report at the time the easement is signed, and then visits conserved properties annually. If activities on the land violate the easement, the Trust may take legal action, if necessary, to halt the damaging activity. Good relationships and communication between the Trust and landowners are essential to help avoid easement violations.
The primary motivation for a landowner to donate a conservation easement is their love for the land, its wildlife, and natural character. Tax benefits may be also available for donations of conservation easements, but this is not always the case. Landowners should consult with their own qualified legal and financial advisors regarding potential tax benefits.
Federal Income Tax: If the donation meets the federal tax code requirements, it may qualify as a tax-deductible donation. The monetary value of the easement must be determined by a qualified real estate appraiser, and is the difference between the land’s appraised value with the easement and its appraised value without the easement. The ecological value of a forever-wild conservation easement, however, is the preservation of wild nature for future generations of all species.
Federal Estate and Gift Taxes: The Internal Revenue Service requires taxes on gifts and estates over certain threshold amounts. A conservation easement can help keep land in the family by reducing its value for transfer between family members or inheritance purposes. An easement donated during one’s life or through a bequest can make a critical difference in the heirs’ ability to keep the land intact and in the family.
Local Property Tax: Depending on the state and any arrangements for Current Use Assessments, placing an easement on one’s property may result in property tax savings. In most cases, however, undeveloped forested parcels are already assessed at the lowest possible rate, and easements do not affect local property tax bills.