Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts (COLT).

Q: What is the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts?
Q: What do land trusts do?
Q: Are all land trusts the same?
Q: What exactly is a conservation easement?
Q: How many easements do land trusts hold in Oregon, and how many acres are under easements?
Q: Why would a landowner agree to a conservation easement?
Q: Do landowners surrender any private property rights through signing a conservation easement?
Q: If a conservation easement is placed on a working farm, ranch, or forest, are such things like the cattle and irrigation systems removed from the land?
Q: Is there a reduction in local property taxes for conservation easements?
Q: Does a conservation easement allow for active forest management?
Q: Why is the easement in perpetuity?
Q: Is public recreational access granted to private lands under conservation easements?
Q: Can anyone start a land trust?
Q: How can I contact one of the member land trusts of COLT?

Q: What is the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts?

A: The Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts (COLT) is the only association of land trusts in Oregon, where it serves as a statewide service center and the central voice of the land trust community. COLT focuses on improving and advancing land conservation in the state through increased land trust capacity and coverage, engagement of stakeholders, defending and developing new and larger sources of funding, and supportive policies around the state. It represents the land trust community and provides leadership on important initiatives in public policy advocacy, policy implementation decisions, and outreach to public and private stakeholders.

The Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts is officially registered with the Oregon Secretary of State as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, and is headquartered in Portland, Oregon.

Land trusts are private, independent, and collaborative (not advocacy-based) nonprofit organizations. Land trusts are not a branch of any governmental entity.

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Q: What do land trusts do?

A: A land trust is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect, preserve, and steward special lands, by working with willing landowners and various community partners. The two most widely used tools to accomplish this mission are a conservation easement or fee-title acquisition, both intent on protecting these lands in perpetuity. Land trusts are not environmental advocacy groups in the traditional sense, and land trusts work closely with landowners, farmers, ranchers, local government, state and federal land and wildlife management agencies and local watershed councils to lands to help maintain Oregon’s natural and economic heritage.

One of the most common forms of partnerships in conserving special lands, land trusts and landowners work voluntarily to mutually negotiate an agreement that limits future industrial, commercial or residential development on the land. That agreement is called a conservation easement.

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Q: Are all land trusts the same?

A: No, not exactly the same. Although land trusts across the country all have some attributes in common, however each land trust in Oregon has its own priorities, service area, mission and goals.

For example, many of the land trusts in Oregon work with landowners in a more narrowly defined geographical area, and have formed close cooperative relationships with local governments, state and federal agencies and other organizations in specific river basins or ecologically similar regions in Oregon. However, other land trusts work state-wide. Some land trusts work on very specific types of landscapes, while others have a wider focus in their conservation goals. Most land trusts are based solely here in Oregon, while a few are regional, national, or even international non-profits who do work in a wide variety of environments. Most land trusts have developed the organizational capacity to hold conservation easements and manage lands themselves, while others only focus on acquiring strategic parcels to then pass on to public agencies, often for parks or recreational lands for the public.

While there are some differences, all the land trusts in Oregon have a common thread running through them: the dedication to private, voluntary land conservation.

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Q: What exactly is a conservation easement?

A: A conservation easement is a negotiated agreement between a landowner and a land trust, where the landowner wishes to extinguish some of the rights to the land so as to permanently protect the conservation, agricultural, or forest value of the land. In most cases, conservation easements effectively codify how the landowners already manage their property, thereby protecting their legacy for years to come. Conservation easements are recorded in the local County records, and are attached to the title of the property in perpetuity.

A conservation agreement is a voluntary legal agreement that limits the landowner’s ability to develop the land, and calls for conservation of the property’s natural values. A conservation easement is negotiated between the landowner and a land trust tailored to the unique character of the land and the conservation goals of the landowner, so easements vary in intent and purpose. But easements typically restrict these land developments: subdivision for residential or commercial activities, dumping of toxic waste, surface mining, etc.

By law, conservation easements must accomplish at least one of these three conservation purposes: protection of open space (including farmland, ranchland and forestland); protection of a relatively natural habitat for fish, wildlife or plants; or protection of lands for education or outdoor recreation for the general public.

So a conservation easement is a negotiated agreement that limits some uses of private lands, protects conservation values and retains working farmlands, ranchlands and forestlands.

The conservation agreement protects the lands in perpetuity, and the easement is recorded at the county courthouse. The land trust, who is often the holder of the easement, then takes on the responsibility of monitoring the land in accordance with the terms of the easement. This is to prevent a violation of the original landowner’s wishes, and to preserve the special qualities of the land for generations.

Because some of the rights willingly relinquished up by the landowner in the conservation easement have monetary value, a donation of an easement to a qualified organization may provide the landowner the benefit of a substantial federal and/or state tax deduction.

Conservation easements in Oregon were codified into state law through Oregon State Statues 271.715-271.795.

For more information on conservation easements, please visit this page at the Land Trust Alliance.

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Q: How many easements do land trusts hold in Oregon, and how many acres are under easements?

A: The number of easements and acres increase on a fairly regular basis, but there are about 460 conservation easements in Oregon: 190 or so held by land trusts, and public agencies (mostly NRCS) hold the remainder. Easements collectively conserve over 156,000 acres across the state.

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Q: Why would a landowner agree to a conservation easement?

A: In most cases, the landowner seeks out a land trust and begins discussions about an easement. A landowner may do so for many different reasons.

Landowners who donate a conservation easement on their property may be eligible for federal and/or state income tax and estate tax benefits. Remember, the easement restricts commercial, industrial and residential subdivision development of the property, so in a practical sense the land value is diminished with the easement. Since that land value is voluntarily diminished – and voluntarily diminished for public benefit – the landowner can receive potential tax benefits.

In some cases, the conservation easement is sold, rather than donated to the land trust. The on-the-ground result is the same: protected open lands, continuation of working farms and ranches, protection of wildlife habitat, and preservation of what makes Oregon such a unique and special place.

In other cases, the landowner donates or in other ways conveys an easement to a land trust for more altruistic reasons. In many cases, the landowner has such a bond with – and passion for – the land that the landowner has one simple wish: to protect the land, to keep the property whole and intact, long after the landowner and the rest of us have departed.

The most effective way to protect private lands in perpetuity is through a conservation easement, working with a land trust.

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Q: Do landowners surrender any private property rights through signing a conservation easement?

A: The conservation easement agreement itself spells out exactly what the landowner is “surrendering.” The conservation easement will generally prevent the landowner from dumping toxic waste on the land or developing a surface mine, and limits residential development on the property.

Outside of that, the landowner typically manages and/or works the land in the same manner as before the conservation agreement was signed.

A conservation easement is an extension of private property rights, and can be a valuable tool for landowners who wish to retain ownership of their property, yet see some effective way of protecting their property well into the future.

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Q: If a conservation easement is placed on a working farm, ranch, or forest, are such things like the cattle and irrigation systems removed from the land?

A: No. In fact, the opposite is true. A typical conservation easement not only allows – it encourages – the property be used for agricultural production, grazing and timber harvesting. In most conservation easements, landowners do not have to modify their management activities.

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Q: Is there a reduction in local property taxes for conservation easements?

A: No. Local property taxes continue to be paid by the landowner.

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Q: Does a conservation easement allow for active forest management?

A: It really depends on what the landowner and the land trust come to agreement on. Conservation easements often encourage forest stewardship and forest health, for example encouraging landowners to take management actions to protect forests from disease, bug infestations and catastrophic fire.

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Q: Why is the easement in perpetuity?

A: Three main reasons. One, current landowners who grant or otherwise convey a conservation easement want assurances their property will be protected not just through their lifetime, but permanently. Two, federal law requires the conservation easement be held in perpetuity to qualify for federal income tax and estate tax benefits. Three, there is a concern that if conservation easements granted tax deductions and were allowed for terms – say, 20 years or 100 years – landowners could be tempted to receive the federal tax deductions for decades while speculating on lands that are rising in value, then subdivide that same property later after the term of the conservation easement expires.

Also, keep in mind there are many land use decisions – on both private and public lands – that are made on a regular basis that in essence are made in perpetuity. When a county planning board and county commission vote to allow a 50-lot subdivision, and the land fills with 50 homes, there is no doubt that land will be in residential/commercial/industrial use in perpetuity.

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Q: Is public recreational access granted to private lands under conservation easements?

A: A conservation easement, by its nature, does not automatically grant public or recreational access to private lands. It really depends upon the wishes of the landowner, and the mission of the land trust itself.

In many cases, land trusts work hard to enhance and expand recreational access to both private and public lands. Some members of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts have active public access programs that significantly expand hiking and other recreation opportunities in their areas. In other cases, a land trust’s conservation goals are in conflict with increased public access.

The main purpose of land trusts, however, and the main charge land trusts have received through state statute, is to protect and conserve open lands, protect and conserve wildlife habitat, protect and conserve working farms and ranches, protect and conserve healthy forests, and protect and conserve stream corridors. Plus, conservation easements take place on private lands, and by law and tradition in Oregon, recreational access to private lands is always determined by the landowner.

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Q: Can anyone start a land trust?

A: Not really. It takes a substantial amount of work, funding, resources, and commitment to start a new land trust in the state. Perpetuity is a very long time, and land trusts’ entire missions and organizations are oriented toward protecting lands forever. Not every organization is able to meet these requirements.

COLT members have worked diligently for decades to earn public trust in their communities and among their partner organizations. In addition, Oregon land trusts have cooperated with the Land Trust Alliance (a national land trust organization) on an exhaustive series of standards and practices for land trust professional and comprehensive guidelines, and are collaborating with the Land Trust Alliance and the U.S. Congress on a systematic and focused accreditation process for land trusts. Finally, because of the federal tax implications of conservation easements, easements can only be held by “qualified” land trust organizations.

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Q: How can I contact one of the member land trusts of COLT?

A: Click here for a listing of all the member land trusts of COLT, including website addresses and telephone numbers.