June 19, 2014

Conservation easements help preserve some of the best of Texas while keeping private lands private

Congress must make conservation easement incentives permanent.

Texas is a beautiful and ecologically diverse state with miles of beaches, tall pine forests, vast open prairies and beautiful, rolling hills. And many of our state’s residents have been closely tied to the land for generations, making their living from farming and ranching. But the face of rural Texas has changed dramatically, with scenic hilltops and once fertile farmlands and valleys being sold and divided into smaller and smaller tracks.

Protecting the natural state of Texas has become increasingly important: one useful tool in doing this is conservation easement.

A landowner can use this voluntary, flexible, negotiated tool to protect their land for future generations by agreeing to restrict certain uses of the property to protect its natural, productive or cultural features. In exchange for this donation, the landowner receives limited tax benefits.

A landowner who places a conservation easement on their land retains legal title to the property and, through discussions with the entity that will hold the easement (most often a land trust), determines the types of land uses to continue and those to restrict. The property is monitored annually by the land trust to ensure that the stipulations of the easement are observed.

Many rights come with owning property, including the rights to manage resources, change use, subdivide or develop. With a conservation easement, a landowner limits one or more of these rights, such as the right to develop a property, but keeps the rights to build a house, raise cattle or grow crops.

The 6,700-acre Shield Ranch is located in a rapidly urbanizing area southwest of Austin. The Shield-Ayres family, which has owned the ranch since 1938, donated a conservation easement to the Nature Conservancy of Texas to insure this scenic property would never be developed for subdivisions or shopping malls. The family actively manages the land as wildlife habitat for game and non-game species. The Shield Ranch is also home to El Ranchito, a nature immersion summer camp for inner city kids.

Although the enhanced incentive has been on the books since 2006, it has expired several times. This on-again, off-again incentive makes it very difficult to educate and encourage potential land donors to enter a conservation easement program, which is a lengthy and potentially expensive process.

Thankfully, H.R. 2807, The Conservation Easement Incentive Act, recently passed out of committee, with help from Texas Representatives Kenny Marchant, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Sam Johnson and Kevin Brady, and can now head to the House floor. This bill would make the enhanced tax incentive for conservation easements permanent. But Congress must act now.

The fragmentation of valuable farmland, open space and ranchland is an issue that should matter to all Texans. The land is part of what defines us as a state and as a people, and together, we can protect significant parts of it forever. But to do this effectively, we need the enhanced conservation easement incentive to be made permanent.

Lori Olson is the Executive Director of Texas Land Trust Council. She can be reached at lori@texaslandtrustcouncil.org

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