Conservation Easements as a Tool for Nature Protection

Tax Notes
William J. Snape III, Laura Harris, and Theresa Geib
May 10, 2021

I. Conservation Easements Matter

The conflict between proponents of land and water conservation and those promoting traditional, natural-resource intensive development is a well-known story. One side sees the economic development of land and water as a fundamental right, while the other side values preservation of wildlife, ecosystems, and biological diversity as at least an equal right. This article examines the intersection of these two viewpoints: the active conservation of land and water resources on private land through conservation easements that extend the long-standing property law notion of easements to the modern situation in which a landowner commits to maintain and conserve the property in a specific condition, usually for a financial benefit.

Public lands set aside for conservation are popular in the United States. While not all public land and water designations are for the protection of wildlife and habitats per se, all these lands receive protection for a variety of natural resource, cultural, or historic reasons. In addition to public lands, more than 60 million acres of private land and water in the United States receive protection, much of it through conservation easements. Because approximately 60 percent of all land in the United States is owned by private parties, no one disagrees that private land is an important part of the overall U.S. conservation puzzle.

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