Conservation easements are a sustainable development land grab
By Clarice Ryan
One of the prime targets of the Sustainability movement is the acquisition and control of private property of this country and the natural resources contained. The Conservation Easement provides the tools, techniques and motivations to legally wrest the land from its owners and transfer it to the federal government supposedly preserving it for future generations. Psychological and economic tactics being used are subtle with long-term objectives seldom identified by property owners. They are led to believe they are helping popular environmental efforts, while at the same time being provided personal financial benefits and security. Some are even awarded public recognition through the media for their noble, unselfish "contribution". Unknowingly they have essentially become victims of legalized fraud. They have enabling NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy to become wealthy in the billions while the land they have committed in perpetuity is doomed to Federal ownership.
Are you about to sign a conservation easement contract? Please hold off until you read this. Your signature will, in essence, split the estate on your property. You are releasing to a land trust, the controlled "use" of the land and development rights, while you retain title to the "land" and remain responsible for all costs of ownership . . forever. It will be virtually impossible for you, your heirs or a purchaser, regardless of circumstance, to over-ride this contract agreement
Differences of opinion with the land trust concerning interpretation of contract terms may eventually lead you to seek court settlement. Unfortunately you, the owner of the land, are committed to bearing all court costs if you lose, which in all likelihood you will. Furthermore, they you can take you to court if they decide you are not adequately meeting contract obligations. You will bear all legal costs including their high priced attorneys. And if your current friendly land trust shows too much leniency, another more demanding third party agency can step in, take over and rule with a firmer hand possibly in the interests of "the environment".
For various reasons including financial difficulty or family disagreements, you or your heirs may attempt to sell all or part of the property. The contract prevents dividing or selling off portions. Prospective buyers are limited for easement encumbered land; the larger the acreage the more limited. Basically it is hard to get rid of.
By law the conservation easement can only be extinguished when the entity holding the easement (the land trust) becomes the full owner of the property, both the land and its controlled use. The friendly land trust will probably be happy to purchase your land at the greatly reduced value. However, once purchased and with the easement restriction removed this non-profit, non-taxpaying land trust it is legally free to resell at high market value of adjoining property. Or they can develop subdivisions; perform timber harvest, lumber mills, mining, oil drilling, and whatever. . . at a profit.
All of this, of course is in direct conflict with your original noble intent when you donated the conservation easement. Sadly the idealistic, worthy causes you had envisioned through the land trust, such as environmental protection, habitat for wildlife, open space, rural living, protection against urban sprawl, will no longer exist except as they may be initiated and enforced by environmental agencies at your expense.
In Montana a recently passed state statute eliminated the nullifying of the perpetual easement contract through land purchase by the land trust, which had virtually eliminated the appeal for them to acquire CE encumbered property... The resale potential for Montana land trusts, especially on large tracts of land, became virtually nil. However, a sales strategy evolved which is now easily utilized by land trusts throughout the country. One prospective purchaser of large scale easement lands remains, the Federal Government. This coincides well with the ever increasing pressures of the environmental movement to increase wilderness regions and great expanses of open space by converting private property to federal. The existence of a conservation easement only enhances the Federal Government efforts to permanently lock up more and more land and natural resources. Thus the new scheme and strategy which evolved has united large land owners, the Nature Conservancy and the Federal government in land acquisition programs which can be applied by states in addition to Montana.
Large property owners such as ranchers and timber land owners are being enticed to place property under conservation easement often receiving in return thousands of dollars in tax benefits in return for the reduced land value. Then the property under easement is purchased by the (non-profit, non-taxpaying) land trust at the reduced value; and can immediately resell to the federal government at considerable profit. The land trust acting as the real estate agent puts together the financial package. The American taxpayer unknowingly picks up the tab for the entire operation at both ends by financing both the tax write-off and the governmental land purchase. Meanwhile the tax base of the county is reduced. In essence our citizens are financing the buy-out of what is left of our nation's private property all in the name of "sustainability" and proclaimed protection of our "open space" and "wilderness" dedicated to wildlife. If this practice continues with ongoing loss of our country's private property throughout the West and Middle-west we are destined to evolve into a totalitarian form of government.
Our country is now experiencing a third major historical shift of land ownership, its uses, resources and wealth. Only two other events in history were of equal significance: the railroad land acquisition of the nation's early days and the Homestead Act. The current episode could constitute a complete change in our form of government which, through the Constitution, is founded upon private property rights of citizens and is designed to protect our freedoms and way of life. The current appeal is innocuous, the tactics subtle verging on fraudulent, and the results inevitable, unless property owners awaken and resist the poison bait. Hopefully our government and legal system, in the interests of our citizens can, in sufficient time, develop protective measures to control and overcome this threatening land grab scheme. Meanwhile we must depend upon caution, restraint and common sense of informed property owners.
An Open Space program was proudly initiated by the US. Forest Service in 2006 for immediate implementation without having to go through Congress. Their promotional publication "Cooperating across Boundaries, Partnerships to Conserve Open Space in Rural America., FS-861, published August 2006 is available through: Phone: 202-401-7784
Clarice Ryan is a member of the Board of Directors for Montanans For Multiple Use – www.mtmultpleuse.org .
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