The Cedar Rapids Gazette
By Gloria Mazza
May 21, 2019
Every year, millions of Americans list charitable giving on their annual tax returns, taking advantage of incentives Congress has put in place to encourage certain types of behavior, such as donating clothes to a local shelter or contributing money to a food bank.
American charitable giving hit a record $410 billion in 2017, and much of this would disappear if not for tax incentives. Altering tax incentives for consumers and businesses can lead to a decrease in the behavior a given incentive was designed to spur.
This lesson underscores why incentives tied to land conservation must be protected. For 28 years, I worked at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Conservation Education Center. I have witnessed the tireless effort it takes to conserve Iowa’s natural habitats. Private landowners who donate their land are providing a service to the government, their communities and generations to come.
About 2 percent of Iowa’s 36 million acres are permanently protected. This includes national wildlife refuges, state parks, state forests and county conservation areas. It takes a statewide effort to ensure the conservation of Iowa’s remaining natural communities. Less than 1 percent of Iowa’s tallgrass prairies, 4 percent of wetlands and 43 percent of forests remain, to date. Because of conservation laws, including the tax incentive, more lands have been donated.
The nationwide increase in conservation in recent decades can be directly tied to its associated tax incentive, which was passed with bipartisan congressional support. Congress, recognizing the conservation easement tax incentive has prompted its intended effects, updated the tax code in 2015 to make the incentive permanent. The incentive has opened the conservation movement to a broader range of Americans. Since 2005, the year before the tax incentive’s introduction, individuals, families and partnerships of unrelated individuals have conserved more than 20 million acres of land.
By passing the conservation easement legislation, Washington policymakers admirably recognized that the value of ensuring biodiverse green spaces, precious habitat and natural lands are not transformed by big investors. Improvements can be made to any legislation but, by and large, current easement legislation has been working as intended to encourage private investment in conservation. It also has led to more lands being conserved than ever before.
Nevertheless, these benefits have not stopped critics from leveling unfounded criticism toward some easement donations, specifically those involving partnerships of unrelated individuals. These baseless attacks are misguided. Why should we turn back the clock on a conservation policy that is working as intended?
Lawmakers should provide added clarity for people looking to take part in conservation through partnerships, but it is too important of a tool to be eradicated completely. In the case of charitable giving, politicians on both sides of the aisle have recognized the value of the tax code. It would be prudent for them to take a similar approach to conservation. Preserving the current conservation tax incentive will prove instrumental in protecting some of Iowa’s most precious natural habitats.