Declining bird populations call for more land conservation, not less

The Hill
By Robert Ramsay
October 15, 2019

Across the country, signs of autumn are on full display – leaves are changing color and temperatures are dropping. Another annual rite of fall – the migration of birds from their summer breeding grounds to wintering grounds – is underway, but sadly fewer birds are taking the journey this year.

In mid-September, a number of well-respected scientists released an alarming study finding that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. That equates to nearly 3 billion fewer birds today than there were when I was born, just 49 years ago. The National Audubon Society and other iconic conservation organizations have labeled this decline “a full-blown crisis.”

Birds not only provide us with their rapturous songs, dazzling plumage and acrobatic presences; they are a fundamental part of functioning ecosystems. Birds protect crops from insects, pollinate flowers and spread plant seeds. They also serve as food for predators and help keep rodent populations in check. In many ways they are the canaries in the coal mine alerting us to the health of the natural world upon which we are dependent for survival. Even small changes in bird populations can have significant and negative ripple effects throughout an ecosystem. The changes reported in the study are not small by any measure.

It is time to address this crisis head on.

While the new study does not delve deeply into the causes for this decline, others have documented many of the causes. One known, major culprit is habitat loss. When forest, wetlands, grasslands and other landscapes are converted or destroyed to build a housing development or shopping center, birds are displaced. In some cases, the habitat may be unique to that area, meaning the birds have no suitable alternative.

Land conservation has a growing and fundamental role in any effort to protect bird populations and their habitat. While governments must continue to assist, the private sector must also participate, particularly in light of the fact that 70 percent of America’s lands are under private ownership.

Fortunately, we have many of the tools we need to address the pressing crisis. Congress has already acted to encourage private land conservation when it updated the tax code in 2015 to make permanent an incentive that opens private conservation to a broader range of Americans. Thanks to congressional effort, millions of acres of habitat have been voluntarily conserved by landowners across the country through the use of conservation easements. This tax incentive is working exactly as intended.

Due to limited instances of abuse, however, some are working to turn back the clock by limiting the ability of Americans to help conserve land. Today, while not supported by many in Congress, two bills exist that seek to limit tax deductions associated with easements donated by partnerships, and they do so retroactively back to 2016.

These bills would not only reduce the amount of habitat that would be conserved in future years, but, if enacted, would require many American taxpayers to amend their tax returns and pay the IRS for deductions they legally claimed. After following the intent of Congress and choosing to permanently conserve their land, these taxpayers would find themselves in the position of gaining nothing in return after having forfeited their land’s development rights in perpetuity. Such retroactive application sets a troubling precedent. As Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist recently noted, retroactive changes to the tax code would “…undermine confidence in the tax system and discourage taxpayers from taking advantage of explicit tax incentives (e.g., for charitable contributions, business investments, and energy efficiency) if they fear Congress might retroactively eliminate these incentives in the future.”

At a time when we need more habitat protection – not less – these bills are the wrong approach. Partnership for Conservation (P4C) has instead developed legislative proposals that make improvements to the conservation process and increase taxpayer compliance, while ensuring the significant expansion of private conservation can continue to grow.

We need to do everything possible to preserve and protect the habitat our bird populations need. I urge everyone to come together to advance solutions that improve and reform the private land conservation process and address this crisis.

Robert Ramsay is president and executive director of the Partnership for Conservation.

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