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The Time is Now for Congress to Act on Conservation

July 15, 2014 | Politico | Washington, D.C.

There are currently more than 5,000 bills that have been introduced by the 113th Congress so far and very few of them will ever see their moment on the floor. It can take years before a combination of perfect timing, broad, bipartisan support and a strong call for action from a wide swath of constituents raises an issue above the fray and moves forward.

That moment has come for a bill that would make permanent a tax incentive for donating conservation easements. This week, Congress will vote on a measure, H.R. 2807 – which comes to the floor as part of a package to encourage charitable giving – which has broad bi-partisan support with 222 co-sponsors and strengthens our economy in local communities nationwide. Most important, though, it will help to protect our natural and rural resources – before they are gone.

The nation’s 1,200 land trusts offer an inspirational and uniquely American story of hope. Over the past 25 years, thousands of citizens in communities across the country have come together to create nonprofit land trusts. Quietly, they have protected over 50 million acres important to their communities and to the nation. And much of that land has been protected through conservation easements.

A conservation easement allows a private landowner to receive a limited tax benefit in exchange for donating the future development rights to his or her property. Or, to put it another way, a conservation easement offers a way for a landowner to continue to own land, keeping it on the tax rolls while protecting important resources on those lands. It is an affordable way to make sure that our forests, working farms and ranch lands stay that way.

Congress was so pleased with the success of this form of conservation that it passed an enhanced tax deduction in 2006, which enabled modest income landowners and farmers to afford to donate easements.  Although this enhanced tax deduction resulted in a 35 percent boost to donations – to nearly one million acres per year – it expired last year.

This tool for conservation enjoys widespread bipartisan support because it is a great example of public-private partnership. For those concerned with federal spending, conservation easements allow important parcels of land to be set aside for pennies on the dollar. Prior to conservation easements’ rise to prominence, federal land acquisition was the primary path to conservation – an important and valuable means to conservation, but one  that has cost taxpayers $12,000 an acre compared to conservation easements, which average just $400 an acre. At a time of limited budgets, conservation easements are the most cost-effective way to conserve natural resources.

Instead of these lands being managed by the federal government at taxpayer expense, these lands are monitored by private land trusts to ensure that their conservation values stay protected even when they change hands. Nationally, there are roughly 1,200 of these land trusts monitoring in excess of 16 million acres of conservation easements.

For those concerned about saving important pieces of land for future food production, hunting, fishing or hiking, conservation easements allow private landowners to keep large tracts of land in working production – creating jobs while ensuring that the farmland, open fields or woodlands remain intact.

Groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Ducks Unlimited, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society and National Farmers Union broadly support making the enhanced tax incentive for conservation easements permanent.

The character of the American people has been shaped our rugged coasts, our mighty rivers, our great plains, our towering mountains. The hardworking farmer, the roughhewn cowboy, and the freshly arrived homesteader are American icons that were formed in relationship with the land and are part of our collective identity. We still aspire to the American dream – a dream made possible by the land that defines and sustains us to this day.

According to U.S.D.A., the United States is losing more than 4,000 acres of farmland, ranchland and open spaces each and every day. Our forefathers had the vision to give birth to a nation; this Congress should have the foresight to protect the land which makes it great. The time is now to make this incentive permanent.

Rand Wentworth is the president of the Land Trust Alliance. The Alliance is a Washington, D.C. based national conservation organization that works to save the places people love.

This op-ed appeared in the Politico on July 15, 2014.

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