Fact Check: The Right Solutions For The Right Diagnosis

P4C’s Legislative Solutions Protect Conservation, Address Abuses

In 2015, Congress took action to help protect some of our nation’s most precious natural resources – from open spaces and wildlife habitats to fresh water and wetlands – permanently preserving a part of the tax code that makes it easier for Americans to donate land for conservation. Known as conservation easements, these donations are legally binding agreements that limit the future development of land and have been essential tools for defending our environment. Now, whether you’re an individual farmer who owns many acres of un-developed land or a homeowner relying on undeveloped property for recreation or even as a buffer against flooding, this important policy has encouraged people of all walks of life to join together through conservation partnerships and protect land for generations to come.

This policy has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support because of its clear return on investment. Not only has this tax incentive helped permanently conserve almost 11 million acres of land since 2005, it has saved the government resources that would have otherwise been spent on protecting these lands for the future.

As with many successful initiatives – including different types of conservation efforts – there are sometimes bad actors who seek to cheat the system at the expense of hardworking taxpayers and the landowners pivotal to conservation efforts. Unfortunately, these rare instances of abuse have led some groups to misdiagnose the issue and prescribe ineffective and harmful solutions.

To identify the right solution – one that continues to deliver on Congress’ objectives of growing land conservation – let’s first correct misinformation about the origin, size and scope of the issue.

  • Origin Fact Check: Unlike what some suggest, the type of conservation easement is not the cause of the issue; it is the lack of higher standards around the conservation easement appraisal process, which has led to some cases of over-valuing property rights and an inflated tax benefit. The reality is, overwhelmingly, those who participate in conservation easements are committed to upholding the highest standards for protecting donated lands forever.
  • Size and Scope Fact Check: While the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued information claiming to capture the size and scope of what it perceives may include potential abuses, the agency has also admitted repeatedly it cannot validate the accuracy of their data, nor can it determine the compliance level of the conservation easement itself. Already, the IRS has decreased its initial estimate of deductions for conservation easements by more than 10,000% – indicating that the direct revenue impacts from this type of private conservation are much smaller originally claimed.

With a more accurate understanding of the facts above, let’s now revisit the appropriate solution.

The legislation currently before Congress fails to address the core issue of over-valuation, arbitrarily applies when the tax incentive can be used, and would ultimately curtail conservation. Not only would the proposed legislation restrict participation in conservation to all but the wealthiest of Americans, it would also result in more lands falling to development, with more wetlands and beachfront property being developed into strip malls and condos. Moreover, the proposed legislation comes at a time when government funding for conservation is drying up and there is as strong a need as ever to preserve our natural resources.

That’s why the Partnership for Conservation is focused on solutions that address concerns around overvaluation while continuing to uphold the original intent of Congress and make conservation affordable for Americans and further safeguard our pristine lands; and no matter what the landowner’s background or how much land they own. Working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Partnership for Conservation is developing legislative proposals to prevent abuse by:

  • Enhancing the definition of a “qualified appraisal” to produce more accurate and well-substantiated valuations.
  • Bolstering the educational requirements to be a “qualified appraiser” in order to ensure appraisers have sufficient training and expertise.
  • Producing greater visibility and transparency of conservation easement donations.

With more than 6,000 acres of open space being lost to new developments every day and the pressing need to protect our environment, it is more critical now, than ever before, that federal policies encourage all Americans to join in the conservation effort, not restrict them. Partnership for Conservation is focused on proposals that will do just that.

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