Promoting open space and land conservation

Our nation is home to many of the world’s most beautiful natural sites, yet every year 2 million acres of land vanish to development. If this pace continues, America risks losing one of our strongest defining assets as a country: open space.

Open spaces, such as parks, farms and forests, are hallmarks of the United States. Since the Colonial era, people have come to America drawn by our abundant and diverse land. The rugged individualism of the frontier and the fertile soils of American farmland were, and remain to this day, part of the social fabric of this great nation.

Open space bolsters property values, increases tourism, provides recreational opportunities such as hiking, hunting, and fishing, and reduces the need to spend on new and costly infrastructure projects. These lands also protect the health and safety of our communities by preserving natural environments and ecosystems. This in turn, improves water quality; reduces air, noise, and sound pollution; and creates more livable communities.

It is clear the American people recognize the importance of open space and conservation. During the 2006 midterm election, my home state of Pennsylvania passed 20 out of 22 ballot initiatives, sending an overwhelming message of bipartisan support for open space preservation.

Collectively those ballot measures resulted in $150 million in funding. Nationwide, in 2002, U.S. voters approved ballot measures supporting $3 billion for conserving open space.

Although most land use decisions are made at the local and state levels, Congress maintains a significant voice on this issue, in particular by the use of the tax code to provide incentives to conserve open space.

On December 31 of this year, the tax deduction for conservation easements will expire. These tax deductions are a crucial tool for conserving open space, and Congress must act now to preserve this tax incentive by making the federal tax deduction permanent.
In Pennsylvania, more than 139,000 acres of private property is protected under conservation easements. These easements are preserving forests, farms, and wetlands across the Commonwealth.

Conservation easements are successful because they empower private landowners to choose conserving their land over selling it off for development. In fact, they are one of the key reasons why the total land conserved by local, state and national land trusts in the United States increased from 24 million to 37 million acres in just the five years between 2000 and 2005.

When landowners enter into an easement they agree to permanently limit uses on their land. The land can be willed to future heirs, but it ensures that the natural state of the land will be protected in perpetuity. Under current law, a landowner who donates an easement to land trust is eligible for a tax deduction. Landowners may deduct the fair market value of their easement for 15 years. Deductions are capped at 50 percent of income and farmers and ranchers may deduct 100 percent of their income.

We have made great strides in conservation, but Congress must act now to continue this progress. I intend to push for Congress to maintain its commitment to open space by making the conservation easement tax deduction permanent.

America has a responsibility to be a global leader in environmental protection and open space protection. By making smart land use and planning decisions today, we will ensure that we pass on to our children and grandchildren a country with safe and attractive places in which to play, live and work in.

Schwartz is a member of the House Budget, and Ways and Means, committees.


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