Is a Conservation Easement for You?

Your property is your treasure, with lots of love, sweat, and maybe even a few tears poured into caring for it. It means a lot to you, and you have a vision for its future. One way to protect that vision is through a conservation easement. It also comes with some tax advantages that can make it an attractive tool for many landowners.

an agricultural field with woodlands
With conservation easements, landowners still retain rights.

Steve Thompson, is a landowner who has taken advantage of a conservation easement. “This farm has been in the family for generations,” says Thompson. “When I retired from milking, it didn’t seem likely the next generation would continue in the dairy business, and we didn’t want to see the farm dissolve.”

A conservation easement was an option to keep their 245 acres south of Daleyville away from development and in agriculture and conservation. “It happens to be land with a wide variety of habitats. We have wetlands, pine relicts, prairies, and oak savannas,” says Thompson.

According to the Land Trust Alliance, every day the United States loses 4,000 acres to development.

“When I was a kid, you drove past dairy farm after dairy farm. Now you have to look hard to find one,” said Thompson. “Given the price of the land, it’s a real temptation many times to sell off 10 acres or whatever. Now that can’t happen to this farm. We have the legal mechanism in place.”

David Clutter, executive director of Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and formerly the executive director of Driftless Area Land Conservancy explains, “Owning land is like owning a bundle of sticks. Each stick represents a right on the property  – like the right to build, to do agriculture, any number of options. A conservation easement lets an owner take certain sticks out of the bundle and extinguishes those rights.” A record of these restrictions then runs with the deed as a perpetual document, protecting the land.

agriculture land vs. developed
Fallow agricultural land on the left becomes developed, on the right.

Future owners will also be bound by the agreement’s terms, and the land trust is responsible for making sure the terms of the agreement are followed in the future. Clutter further explained, “If problems occur in the third generation, or the property is sold to someone who knows nothing about the easement, it’s our responsibility through annual monitoring to make sure the property is conserved.”

Should an agreement be violated, the land trust is responsible for defending it. Clutter provided an example.

“We have strong legal precedent on our side,” said Clutter. “For example, someone bought a property in Maine and built a McMansion on the hill. The trust took them to court. They had to remove the house and restore the land.”

This kind of monitoring has a cost that comes at the expense of the land trust, one of the main drivers behind their fundraising efforts. But Clutter also noted that Congress has created an incentive to provide tax benefits to those who protect their land with a conservation easement. If the easement meets federal regulations and is donated, it can be claimed as an income tax deduction. A decrease in property taxes is also a possibility when development is restricted by a conservation easement.

While tax benefits exist, Clutter explained, “The main purpose of the conservation easement is the peace of mind knowing that your property is protected. In the many years I have done conservation easement work, most landowners are less concerned about tax breaks than about doing what seems right to them for the long term.”

Landowners with a conservation easement still own their land, control access, pay property taxes and can sell, lease, bequeath or transfer the property as they see fit.

“On our land,” says Thompson, “the agricultural options are still open, but we hope someone interested in planned conservation will care for this land. We put in place the legal considerations for doing that.”

For more on conservation easements, visit our page on Tax Advantages or contact your local land trust.

Written by Denise Thornton, Driftless Landowner and Environmental Blogger for where this article was originally featured.