Over a Thousand Acres More
Three projects in New Mexico
Since 1988 Taos Land Trust has been working to protect land in northern New Mexico, one acre at a time. In fact it’s the only organization in Taos and neighboring counties that is exclusively dedicated to permanent land conservation. Three of their conservation easements protect 1,029 acres of exceptional wildlife habitat, prehistoric rock art and incredible views.
Roger and Terri Meeker placed an easement on 554 acres of stunning wildlife habitat on their Touch-Me-Not Mountain Preserve just above the Village of Eagle Nest; Don and Charmi Morris who protected 323 acres along the Rio Ojo Caliente, which includes a stretch of rare and beautiful riparian habitat and a hillside filled with prehistoric petroglyphs; and Ann McDaniel, the Morris’s neighbor, protecting 152 acres of similar land.
The Touch-Me-Not Mountain Preserve is next door to the 33,000-acre Colin Neblett State Wildlife Area and essentially increases the amount of land protected for wildlife habitat. Large herds of elk and deer are found on the property, but also mountain lion, bear, lots of birds, and several endangered or “at-risk” species. Beyond simple preservation, the Meekers are also planning some ambitious habitat restoration projects.
The Meekers, from the Big Island of Hawaii, also have a home in Taos. “We’re excited about being able to use the conservation easement as a vehicle to permanently protect and preserve from subdivision and conventional development one of the most unique and beautiful tracts of land in the Moreno Valley,” says Roger. And unique and beautiful it is.
The Morris and McDaniel projects primarily protect the scenic open land of the hillside and basalt cliffs of Black Mesa, as well as a strip of lush streamside riparian habitat through the middle of some very dry country. Both properties also contain some of the best examples of prehistoric rock art in the “Rio Arriba,” or Upper Rio Grande Region, etched into the rock by ancestors of San Juan and other nearby pueblo peoples. The cottonwood and willow riparian zone hosts dozens of species of songbirds and is bounded by undeveloped BLM land.
Don Morris explains his motivations: “When I first bought this property I took one look at it and told the realtor that I figured the appropriate building density was one. Anyone who has ever watched a red tail hawk hunting the side of Black Mesa in the golden sunset light would never want to see this land developed.”
Ann McDaniel says, “This conservation easement is going into the middle of an area that is being fairly heavily developed. So this will be a rare strip along the highway that will stay the same—the night skies won’t be polluted with lights and it brings the wild right up to the edge of the road. A real benefit to everyone who drives through.”
Both in Eagle Nest and the Rio Ojo Caliente area, Taos Land Trust hopes to work with these landowners and their neighbors to eventually piece together other properties into contiguous protected areas that will total around 2,000 acres each. “Any acre saved is better than an acre developed, but when we can put together larger connected properties, that’s the best outcome for protecting the integrity of wildlife habitat and the ecosystem and other benefits of a natural landscape,” says Atencio.
Conservation easements allow landowners to decide how their land will be cared for in the future by voluntarily retiring certain development rights, but they still own the land and are not required to provide public access. They can continue actively managing for farming, ranching or sustainable forestry, can reserve limited home sites for kids and grandkids, can sell it or pass it on to heirs, but the protection stays with the land forever no matter who owns it. Because conservation easements provide real and permanent benefit to the public, they qualify landowners for federal income tax benefits.
Projects completed by the end of 2009 can qualify for huge federal tax deductions—50% of your annual income for up to 16 years; if you make at least half your income on your land from farming or ranching or forestry, you can take a 100% deduction for 16 years. In New Mexico landowners can take up to $100,000 in state income tax credit. In most cases easements also reduce or eliminate estate taxes.
According to a recent report from the Land Trust Alliance, each year about two million acres of land across the country go under to development. The pace of permanent land conservation is accelerating but still lagging behind, with an average of about 750,000 acres a year protected by conservation easements. New Mexico, however, ranks among the top ten states in terms of total acres conserved over the last five years.
“There is still a lot to do, but Taos and northern New Mexico should be proud to be part of this growing conservation movement that is making a real and lasting difference in the world,” says Atencio.
Photo courtesy Taos Land Trust