Land Trusts: Separating the Good from the Bad

Aug 18, 2003

Most people want clean air, clean water and healthy forests. The question for landowners and policymakers is how best to accomplish those objectives and at what cost to taxpayers, the economy and local communities.

Over the past thirty years overuse of the traditional top-down, government control approach to environmental protection has fostered a highly adversarial regulatory climate that often stifles economic growth and development, particularly in rural, resource-dependent communities. Lawsuits and heated disagreements between environmentalists and landowners are a common theme of the existing regulatory system. After years of conflict, most people want a fresh alternative -- one that can bring environmentalists, property owners and businesses together to cooperate in protecting our natural surroundings.

To avoid repeating the conflicts of the past some conservation groups are turning to land trusts as a new way to encourage landowners to protect sensitive environmental areas. In a pure model, a land trust raises private money to buy the land it wants to protect. This approach contrasts with the traditional practice of filing lawsuits or lobbying local, state and federal policymakers for greater restrictions on private property and public land use.

A recent series in The Washington Post about the Nature Conservancy, one of the world's largest land trusts, shows that trusts do not always follow the pure model of raising private funds to purchase land. In research by Washington Policy Center, we evaluate the land trust movement, laying out some of the major political and structural problems of land trusts. As part of our research, we also establish core criteria that property owners can use when deciding to do business with their local trust.

At the heart of problems with many land trusts is an increasing reliance on government subsidies to fund the purchase of land and easements. Part of the reason land trusts have become so popular is the tax benefits granted by Congress to encourage landowners to donate their land or establish a trust-managed conservation easement. By controlling the types of conservation that receives tax benefits, the federal government can pick winners and losers. Private landowners that chose, of their own free will, to limit development on their land without working with a land trust do not receive a tax benefit, but those who cede control to a land trust do. Both property owners accomplish the same conservation objective, but in one case, the federal government offers a financial reward.

Also troubling is the added IRS requirement that an easement be granted in perpetuity if the landowner is to receive a tax benefit. As most landowners understand, land values and uses change over time. An area that was once best used for timber production or grazing, may later be best used for agriculture or development. By extending the term of an easement indefinitely, future generations will have little ability to adjust the use of the land to that which best fits the needs of society.

Another discouraging tactic being employed by some land trusts is coordinated government coercion. With increased frequency, non-profit land trusts are plotting with local and state governments to zone or otherwise restrict the use of private property. By doing so, they reduce the value of that property, making it less expensive for the land trust to purchase. The landowner, on the other hand, has little recourse once his land value is reduced through regulation. In many cases, the only alternative is to negotiate a deeply discounted purchase agreement with the land trust.

While it is important to be aware of the problems with land trusts, landowners should also look for good examples. In many areas of the country, land trusts are working closely with local landowners to cooperatively achieve the conservation goals of the community. In some cases, ranchers and farmers voluntarily establish land trusts to protect their community from approaching development. In other circumstances, timberland owners have worked with land trusts to reduce their tax burden and maintain timber harvest as a viable land use.

A few key principles are common to land trusts that have established a positive community relationship. These include:

  • Not accepting government grants.
  • Relying exclusively on voluntary transactions, not regulatory coercion.
  • Enacting a permanent restriction on the sale of land to the government.
  • Forging a cooperative community relationship.

Failure to abide by these core principles undermines the mutual trust necessary for a successful voluntary conservation program and distorts the environmental-protection interests of the broader community.

Sign up for the WPC Newsletter