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Private Land Conservation in U.S. Soars

November 30, 2006 | Washington, D.C.

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jim Wyerman
202-638-4725x 310


Total Acres Conserved Increases 54% from 24 million to 37 million since 2000; Increased Tax Incentives and Growth in West, Southeast are Trends to Watch

Washington, D.C. - A new report released today by the Land Trust Alliance finds that the pace of private land conservation by local and state land trusts more than tripled between successive five-year periods from 2000 to 2005.  State and local land trusts have doubled their conservation acres from 6 million to 11.9 million acres in the past five years – an area twice the size of the state of New Hampshire.

Including national conservation groups a total of 37 million acres have been conserved by private means—an area 16 1/2  times the size of Yellowstone National Park.  The National Land Trust Census is the nation’s only tabulation of private land conservation data.

“The success of private land conservation boils down to this: When people appreciate the natural qualities of their environment, they are increasingly taking steps in each of their communities to conserve what makes that land unique,” said Rand Wentworth, President of the Land Trust Alliance.  “With the federal government reporting that we lose about two million acres to development sprawl each year, private, voluntary conservation gives everyday Americans the tools and resources they need to protect their natural heritage.”

The National Land Trust Census quantifies private conservation efforts in America from 2000 to 2005.  Through a survey of land trusts operating in the U.S., the Land Trust Alliance measures the number of acres privately conserved; the types of conservation tools used; the types of land they target for conservation; regional growth patterns; and organizational resources.  Additional findings of the report include:

  • The states with the highest total acres conserved are California, Maine, Colorado, Montana, Virginia, New York, Vermont, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.  Notably, Colorado and Virginia are two of the few states offering a state tax incentive for conservation, operating in tandem with the federal incentive—a likely factor in the rankings.
  • The American West is the fastest-growing region in both the number of acres saved and the number of land trusts, followed by the Southeast.  The Northeast gained the most acreage under conservation easement, nearly tripling the acres so held in the past five years.  Acreage protected increased in every region of the country.
  • America’s land trusts have markedly enhanced their professionalism and increased their ranks to 1,667 in 2005 from 1,263 in 2000.
  • Local and state land trusts increased the acres protected by conservation easements by 148%.  These private, voluntary agreements saved 6,245,969 acres in 2005, versus 2,514,566 just five years ago.   
  • The land type reported as being the primary focus of land trust efforts is protecting natural areas and wildlife habitat (39%), followed by open space (38%) and water resources (26%), especially wetlands.  

In addition to assessing data on private, voluntary land conservation, the National Land Trust Census also identifies key trends to watch in private, voluntary land conservation.  Among the trends is increased knowledge and use of conservation easements as a tool to conserve land.  Use of conservation easements more than doubled in the past 5 years, with the Northeast being most active in this area.

A new federal tax incentive for donations of conservation easements, enacted in August 2006 and providing special adjustments to help farmers and ranchers, is expected to prompt more large-scale conservation throughout the West.  With land trusts developing in the West much later than in the Northeast, where some date back more than 100 years, the West is nonetheless catching up with the fastest rate of growth in terms of both acres saved and numbers of land trusts. 

“The fact is that many ranchers like me simply can’t afford to do a conservation easement without tax incentives that help level the playing field with developers.  It’s voluntary, it’s needed, and it’s one of the few ways to keep working ranches like mine intact and in my family,” said Ogden Driskill, owner of the ranch surrounding Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

Another trend to watch is that tax incentives at both the state and federal level are spurring private conservation, particularly as federal funding for land conservation purchases has dried up.  Ballot initiatives, providing new funding for conservation, are also supporting more conservation in some states.  In 2006, $6.7 billion in public funding was approved in 133 ballot initiatives across the country, including California, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas.  This compares to $1.5 billion in new conservation ballot initiatives in 2005. 

Land trusts are also enhancing their professionalism and attracting more private funding.  Growth was seen in not just the number of land trusts, but also in their levels of staffing (47%), volunteers (63%), funding (120%), and philanthropic support (61% more members).  An important new trend is the growth in endowments which are used by land trusts to ensure long-term stewardship of land in their care.  Fifty-four percent of land trusts report using endowments, totaling over $1 billion.  

Land Trust Alliance President, Rand Wentworth said, “Private conservation works because it’s locally driven, supported by sound tax policy, and people-oriented.  This is what land conservation looks like in the 21st century.”

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