Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

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Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Taking Notice

Two western newspapers have taken notice of the conservation easement debate and the impact it would have on their respective states. The Rocky Mountain News notes In Colorado, 915,000 acres are covered by conservation easements, according to a survey just completed by the Colorado Conservation Trust, a Boulder-based nonprofit focused on preserving open lands.
The easements have helped to preserve some of the sweeping views that drew people to Colorado in the first place. In the Roaring Fork Valley, where development pressures have intensified with skyrocketing land values, Mike and Kit Strang donated conservation easements on much of their 450-acre horse ranch near Carbondale.
"It's 100 percent visible from a public road and has big vistas," said Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, the state's oldest such group.
The Strang Ranch is among the remaining working ranches in a valley that has increasingly succumbed to subdivisions.
"It's one of the main productive, prosperous ranches," said Cochran, whose group managed the deal. "You can't just have one left."
Colorado alone has 42 land trusts, many of which report that the trend toward conservation easements has grown rapidly since the state began offering donors tax credits, which can be sold to raise cash.
That has proved a boon to land-rich but cash-strapped ranchers who want to stay on their land but wouldn't benefit much from taking an income tax deduction when they donate an easement.

It's a similar situation in Wyoming, so says the Casper Star Tribune. The article quotes land trust leaders as saying the easements are vital to preserve land there... and includes this..
U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., a member of the Finance Committee, said after the hearing he was inclined to agree.
"Obviously there have been some actions taken by groups and individuals that have raised concerns and called conservation easement usage into question," Thomas said in a written statement. "As with any charity, receiving special tax considerations requires a group to withstand public scrutiny and be held to the letter of the law. What we learned today is that curbing abuse may be more of a question of enforcing existing law than imposing new requirements."
Wednesday's hearing focused on a range of concerns. Many involved The Nature Conservancy, the world's largest environmental group and the subject of a two-year investigation by the committee's staff. Others centered on individuals and smaller charities that allegedly manipulate conservation laws to generate large tax deductions.
In Wyoming, conservation easements arranged by The Nature Conservancy protect 239,956 acres. The Jackson Hole Land Trust, meanwhile, has used the tool to protect more than 20 percent of the private land in Teton County -- property that today has a combined market value of nearly $700 million, Lindstrom said.
Thomas said any reform efforts should consider the purpose of conservation easements, improve the appraisal process, and promote greater accountability among land trusts.
"I will continue to talk with Wyoming groups and my colleagues in the Finance Committee to find a reform plan for these kinds of tax treatments," the senator said. "Conservation easements are not a tool favored by all landowners, but we ought not take this instrument away from folks who may want to use them to keep their lands involved in agriculture."

Thomas is noteworthy because he is not only a western Republican Senator on the Finance committee, but because he is not one of the senators who signed the letter supporting easements before the hearings. That's one more indication the easements will stay, with modifications.

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