A “conservation easement” is a voluntary, legally enforceable land preservation agreement between two parties wherein a landowner sells or donates the development rights to a tract of land to a qualified holding organization, such as a land trust, effectively preventing forest conversion or other stipulated activities, usually in perpetuity.
Conservation easements are attractive to conservation organizations and funders because such agreements often offer a more cost-effective means of securing land under some form of conservation status. Easements typically cost at least 40 percent less per acre than outright land purchases.
Conservation easements have four major benefits to landowners: (1) they allow the retention of private ownership, (2) they provide a high degree of flexibility in terms of meeting landowner management and conservation objectives, (3) they allow active forest management, and (4) they offer financial benefits via income, estate and property tax reductions, and potential revenues from existing and emerging ecosystem service markets.
Conservation easements have become an increasingly popular land conservation approach in the United States. The amount of land nationwide under conservation easement has grown from approximately 500,000 acres in 1990 to more than 30 million acres in 2011.
However, the southern United States currently has a disproportionately low share of the nation’s private land under conservation easement. Although the South constitutes approximately 37 percent of the private land area in the United States, to date it has only 18 percent of the country’s total conservation easement acres. The south also has a disproportionately low share of the total number of easements in the U.S.; only approximately 9 percent of the total number of easements in the country are located in the South.
Key barriers to greater uptake of easements in the South and elsewhere include: (1) landowner misconceptions about what easements are and what easement agreements entail, (2) landowner perceptions that the financial costs of easements outweigh the benefits, (3) landowner concerns about the perpetual nature of most conservation easement agreements, and (4) limited financial and staffing resources by holding entities or land trusts to purchase easements, in addition to the small number of institutional buyers.
There are three main ways these barriers can be overcome: (1) increase resources and capabilities of land trusts, (2) increase financial benefits and contract length flexibility, and (3) strengthen landowner education in order to correct misconceptions.
This issue brief is intended to provide an overview for conservation professionals and conservation funders in the South of the current status of conservation easements in the region relative to the rest of the United States, and how easement use can be increased. It is also intended for landowners interested in exploring conservation easements for their own properties. Although this brief is part of a series dedicated to southern U.S. forests, the ideas presented here could be applied to a spectrum of ecosystems throughout the United States.