Dear EarthTalk: What’s a “land trust” and how does it help the environment?
—Sam Sterling, Dallas, TX
A land trust is an organization that works with landowners to conserve their land, either by buying it from them or obtaining it as a donation. Legal agreements between the trust, the landowner and the local government are then created in order to permanently limit development of the land. Land trusts are usually nonprofit, and their purpose is to provide long-term stewardship of not just land, but sometimes areas of historical or archeological significance.
The need for land trusts arose out of public concern for the loss of open space, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty in the face of rampant development on private land during the latter half of the 20th century. More than 1,600 land trusts have since sprung up in a variety of communities across the U.S. Together they have protected some 37 million acres of land, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, DC-based umbrella group formed in 1981 to help land trusts share information and work more effectively.
When a land trust acquires land, it may retain ownership in perpetuity in order to protect the parcel from development. When landowners donate parcels to a land trust outright, they can take advantage of state and federal income tax deductions—similar to any tax-deductible, non-profit donation—while saving considerable money on property and estate taxes moving forward.
Whether a land trust buys a parcel or gets it donated, it can either hold onto the property or, depending on the arrangement with the former owner, sell it to a third party—often a local or state government that commits to turning it into a protected area. Land trusts also sell land to private buyers, usually with strict restrictions on future development. The benefit to keeping the land under private ownership is that it can then stay on local property tax rolls and thus continue to provide revenue for the local government.
Another way land trusts work is through “conservation easements,” whereby individuals can protect their land but still retain ownership and the option of selling or passing it along to heirs. Future owners of the land are also bound by the easement”s terms, which restrict development and use and are often monitored by a land trust. Conservation easements usually lower the financial value of their land (by limiting development potential), but landowners benefit because their property taxes go down accordingly. Likewise, if and when heirs inherit the land, the conservation easement lessens their estate tax burden.
Every conservation easement is different, but most include provisions limiting or forbidding construction or resource extraction. Often they protect especially sensitive lands such as wetlands. Some easements allow specific parcels to be used for agriculture, ranching or logging. Many allow hiking, camping, bird watching or even hunting (though some specifically ban hunting and are created for that purpose).
Another nonprofit group, the American Land Conservancy (ALC), functions like a national land trust working nationwide to ensure that large or exceptional pieces of property stay out of the hands of developers. Some of ALC”s work has led to the creation or expansion of national parks in Colorado, Hawaii and elsewhere.