Conservation easements seeing more support

By Tim
Spielman

Associate Editor

St. Paul — Two key U.S. senators have introduced legislation
that would extend a program that provides landowners’ tax benefits
while conserving land. The voluntary land conservation initiative
became more favorable to landowners last summer when the incentives
increased greatly.

Now, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa,
say not only has the program shown it can work, but qualified
organizations that accept and manage the donated lands – once the
subject of criticism by the Washington Post – are getting the job
done.

That’s good news, according to Jane Prohaska, executive director
of the Minnesota Land Trust, which holds about 27,000 acres of land
in conservation easements – most of them donated.

Most of those easements are held and managed, in perpetuity, by
the Land Trust, she said.

During August of last year, when some members of Congress
recommended the plug be pulled on voluntary conservation easements
with tax benefits, a proposal came forward to not only hold onto
the conservation option, but to increase the incentives to
participate. At that time, the maximum donation landowners could
make increased from 30 percent to 50 percent of their adjusted
gross income. Also, farmers and ranchers were allowed to deduct up
to 100 percent of their adjusted gross income. The bill also
increased, from 5 to 15 years, the time during which donors could
take the tax deduction.

“Voluntary conservation agreements … are an important tool for
land conservation,” according to the Land Trust Alliance. “When
landowners donate voluntary conservation agreements, they protect
resources important to the public by giving up future development
rights, while retaining ownership and management of the land.”

Prohaska said the changes allowed Congress to do a couple
things.

“It allowed them to test the waters, to see if this is a useful
tool,” she said. “It also answered questions about non-profits and
the use of easements.”

According to Ducks Unlimited, President George W. Bush also
supports continuation of the program

“In his budget proposal, President Bush will recommend a
permanent extension of these tax incentives,” DU stated in a news
release last week. “This move is another significant step toward a
commitment to create, improve, and protect at least 3 million acres
of wetlands between Earth Day 2004 and 2009.”

Scott Sutherland, DU director of governmental affairs, said it
was important to have support from various camps.

“The stars are aligning, and if this bipartisan effort
continues, these conservation tax incentives could become permanent
this year,” Sutherland said.

Prohaska said the use of voluntary conservation easements, while
increasing since the incentives were hiked in 2006, still aren’t as
high priority as they are in Western states, where the contribution
helps farmers and ranchers – in some cases – maintain ownership of
their land, by reducing their tax burden.

Unlike other conservation programs such as the Conservation
Reserve Enhancement Program in Minnesota, voluntary conservation
easements are set up on an individual basis, and usually are
somewhat unique, Prohaska said. The average project is about 100
acres.

“We design the easement to protect the habitat,” she said.

Tom Landwehr, assistant state director for The Nature
Conservancy in Minnesota, said voluntary conservation easements
inquiries increased last year when the benefits of doing so went
up.

“I think it certainly got a lot of landowners’ interest,” he
said.

While promising, conservation groups say the proposal still must
pass Congressional muster.

“It must go through Congress like any other legislation,”
Prohaska said.

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