Frequently Asked Questions—land trusts and conservation easements
Land Trusts Faqs
We unite conservation nonprofits and serve as the central voice of the land trust community in Oregon. At COLT, have over 25 members—conservation organizations—and we are officially registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Oregon.
A land trust is a nonprofit that works with individuals and partners to conserve land.
There are more than 1,700 land trusts across the country and more than 25 in Oregon—all working to protect special places and local ways of life for generations to come. These organizations are deeply rooted in local communities and protect places like waterways, wildlife habitat, parks, community gardens, working farms and more. The two most widely used tools are a conservation easement or fee-title acquisition, both intent on protecting these lands for all time. Land trusts are not environmental advocacy groups in the traditional sense, and land trusts work closely with landowners, farmers, ranchers, local governments, and community leaders to help maintain Oregon’s natural heritage.
Nope. Land trusts across the country are united in the idea that important lands should be protected for generations to come, but each organization approaches this idea differently. Each land trust will have its own priorities, partnerships, plan, service region and mission.
Some land trusts are rooted in a small geography, serving the needs of their local community while others are statewide, national or have even international reach. Some focus on a particular habitat—sagebrush or wetlands, for instance—while others concentrate on a species, issue areas or recreation opportunities.
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’ 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 organization) on an exhaustive series of standards and practices for land trust professional and comprehensive guidelines.Finally, because of the federal tax implications of conservation easements, easements can only be held by “qualified” land trust organizations.
Perhaps the most critical source of funding comes from the local community itself. People who value conservation in their community often support their local land trust through generous donations, matching gifts, estate planning and more. (If that’s you, THANK YOU! If you want it to be you, consider a gift to one of our members or to COLT!)
Land trusts also often look to conservation financing. Conservation financing utilizes local, state, federal and other funding sources to protect open space and manage growth. State and local governments continue to fund open space acquisition, viewing parks, recreation and habitat as “green infrastructure” important to the quality of life and the economy.
A conservation easement is a negotiated agreement between a landowner and a land trust to protect private land. The landowner wishes to limit usage on the land to permanently protect it’s value and, in most cases, conservation easements effectively codify how the landowners already manage their property, thereby protecting their legacy for years to come. 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.
In most cases, landowners seek out local land trusts to help them protect places they care about—like their property or a community gem—and 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.
The conservation easement agreement is crafted for each individual circumstance. The conservation easement will generally prevent uses like dumping toxic waste on the land or developing a surface mine, and limits residential development on the property. Outside of that, the landowner typically determines what a conservation easement looks like and 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.
No. In fact, the opposite is true. A typical conservation easement on existing working lands work to keep it that way. It can allow the property to be used for for agricultural production, grazing and timber harvesting. In most conservation easements, landowners do not have to modify their management activities.
No. Local property taxes continue to be paid by the landowner.
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.
Three 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 term—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, thereby undermining the ethic of conservation.
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. By law and tradition in Oregon, recreational access to private lands is always determined by the landowner. In many cases, land trusts work hard to enhance and expand recreational access to Oregon 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. Want to check them out? We have a list of ideas for you!
The land trust is responsible for enforcing the restrictions detailed in the easement document. Therefore, the land trust monitors the property on a regular basis, typically once a year, to determine that the property remains in the condition prescribed by the easement document.