Conservation easements emerged in the 1990s as a vehicle for private land conservation in which property owners placed a legally enforced mandate on their land to restrict certain types of development in perpetuity. As of October 2015, 113,038 conservation easements have been formed in the United States according to the National Conservation Easement Database.
According to the Merrill W. Linn Land and Waterways Conservancy, conservation easements are: “Voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust (or other qualified organization) in which the land owner places restrictions on the use of his or her property, in order to protect the natural values of the land. Donation of a conservation easement protects your land permanently while keeping it in private ownership. A conservation easement, held by a land trust, provides permanent protection of the natural values of the site. The landowner retains ownership of the property and all rights and privileges for its use, except for the uses restricted under the easement.”
The primary advantage to a conservation easement is ensuring a desired legacy for landowners. Simply put, some landowners don’t ever want to see their land turned into a golf course or suburban development and this legally enforced agreement ensures that legacy while keeping it in private ownership. Decreased estate taxes are a key advantage to placing a conservation easement on land, as the inheritors of an estate may not be able to afford the property taxes without a decreased valuation of the property and subsequent decreased tax rate. The clear disadvantage to conservation easements is that future landowners must abide by these restrictions and this decreases their property value. In addition, opponents claim that conservation easements are exploited as a tax loophole for wealthy landowners even if the initial tax code was well intended.
Those interested in setting up a conservation easement can contact a local land trust from the National Conservation Easement Database to discuss options for implementation. Private and publicly held corporations can become involved with conservation easements by partnering with established nonprofits that work in the space. Apple partnered with the Conservation Fund to protect forests through a series of conservation easements designed as “working forests”. These forests are held on private land and conservation easements are set up to ensure sustainable harvesting practices on the land. The Conservation Fund’s interests are met by ensuring protected forest habitat on private land that could be in danger of clear-cutting, while Apple’s commercial interests are secured by ensuring long-term stability of their paper supply chain.
According to Apple’s Environmental Responsibility Progress Report 2016:
“In partnership with The Conservation Fund, we’ve protected 36,000 acres of sustainable forest in North Carolina and Maine and responsibly harvested more than 13,000 metric tons of wood. The 3600-acre forest we’re protecting in North Carolina will connect to the 17,000-acre Green Swamp Preserve, improving biodiversity and connectivity for wildlife in the area.”