Bipartisan support for conservation partnerships enable greater protections of our pristine land

Bipartisan support for conservation partnerships enable greater protections of our pristine land
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It is rare that economic interests and environmental concerns align, but many years ago, lawmakers in Washington found a way to do just that by incentivizing charitable donations of conservation easements through the tax code.

Under this structure, which has been part of legislation signed by both Presidents Obama and Bush, private land conservation has boomed as it became a viable option for more landowners and developers for whom it was previously out of reach.

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This tax structure was created with the important goal of increasing conservation of unspoiled lands. By placing lands into conservation and giving up their development rights permanently, landowners can qualify for a tax deduction.

 

This is the same idea behind other public policies that encourage decisions that otherwise would not be made and end up achieving the public good of more affordable housing, encouraging greener energy production, driving development in disadvantaged communities, etc.

Unlike some frustrating sections of the tax code, the conservation easement legislation is working. According to the Land Trust Alliance, 56 million acres of land have been conserved as of 2016. That’s an increase of nine million acres since 2010 and nearly 20 million acres since 2005, which is roughly the same size as the state of South Carolina. This level of conservation is a major achievement that should be celebrated by all who value our natural lands and resources.

There are some, however, who want to limit charitable donations of conservation easements to the privileged few. These vocal few are pressing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Congress to make it harder for groups of individuals to join together and donate land.

In many cases, these are individuals who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate in land conservation, either because they lack the means or the land. Anyone who wants to conserve land should have the opportunity to do so, from urban professionals who want to save green space in communities where they live or work, to family farmers or ranchers trying to preserve a way of life.

 

Opponents of these partnerships say that conservation shouldn’t be done with a financial incentive in mind, even though that’s exactly what Washington intended when this charitable deduction was written into the tax code. What the detractors won’t say is that all conservation donors use the same process and standards as real estate investment partnerships, and that the ownership structure of the land is not a factor in determining the quality of conservation.

It is always commendable when a major landowner decides to conserve a large tract of land they own in a remote, picturesque part of the country. But if we only rely on multi-millionaires and billionaires for conservation, we will see far too many pieces of land fall to development.

And because a great many landowners in the U.S. do not have significant incomes despite owning a valuable asset, they simply can’t afford to donate their property to conservation, even if they wanted to. However, by utilizing diverse sources of private funding and adhering to the tax code as intended, more dollars will be driven into conservation and help protect important ecosystems at the edge of urban sprawl, or in places where development is an inevitable consequence of economic growth.

The goal for all of us is to preserve more of our pristine lands for generations to come, and the current tax structure is working well to meet that goal. While there are limited abuses that should be addressed, rather than turning back the clock and reserving conservation for individual landowners only, we should continue to democratize the process and make sure more Americans can take part in this important endeavor. Our children, grandchildren and future generations will reap the benefits and thank us for doing so. 

Drew Troyer is chairman of the board of Compatible Lands Foundation.