CONGRESS is poised to act on a matter that may fundamentally define the future of land conservation in Washington state. At stake is landowners’ ability to voluntarily protect their own farms, forests and wild places.
The technical nature of the law makes this the most important legislation that you’ve never heard of.
Washington’s population grew from roughly 4 million in 1980 to about 7 million in 2013 — and is expected to reach nearly 9 million by 2040. That growth inevitably puts pressure on our greatest resource: our land. According to the 2013 Economic Report of the President, our country is losing wildlife habitat as well as farms, ranches and forest lands at an alarming rate, with an estimated 2 million acres lost every year.
Even when development pressures come to bear on Washington land, land loss need not be inevitable.
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In the shadow of Mount Adams, fourth-generation farmers Robert and Lesli Schmid, who own our state’s oldest organic dairy farm, receive incessant inquiries to sell their land for development. (If you’ve ever had Organic Valley milk, you may have tasted the goodness his cows provide.)
High above the Little Klickitat River, ranchers Michael and Karen Jennings
watched as oak woodlands, grasslands and historic agricultural land were converted into home sites.
Both of these Washington families have run small businesses for decades and built deep respect for the land and the bounty it provides. And because of a legal tool called a conservation easement, their land will never be developed, even if it’s sold in the future.
Simply put, a conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a private landowner and a land trust or government agency that ensures a parcel of land will never be divided or developed.
The easement becomes a binding legal contract, defensible in court. The land trust or agency that holds the easement regularly monitors the property to ensure that the terms of the easement are upheld. In Washington state, landowners working with land trusts have conserved more than 60,000 acres, or 94 square miles, in this way.
Such conservation can confer a tremendous public benefit. Land under an easement stays in private ownership. It remains on the public tax rolls. Easements keep our food supplies close to home, provide land-connected jobs and preserve habitat for wildlife in landscapes that have become fragmented. Those are things that all of us value in Washington. Those are things that provide us our unparalleled quality of life.
Landowners have the right to do many things on their own property, often including the right to divide or build. But they also should have the right to never build, to make sure their land will remain, forever, a farm or a forest or habitat for wildlife.
For donating an easement, owners may receive a federal tax deduction. In 2006, Congress enhanced this deduction to encourage more landowners to conserve land. Since 2006, easement donations have increased 35 percent nationally. But this law expired at the end of 2013. When the law has expired in the past, easement donations have fallen.
Without the enhanced incentive, a farmer earning $50,000 a year who donates an easement worth $1 million may save at most $22,500 in federal taxes over six years. The enhanced incentive allows that farmer to save up to $136,848 over 16 years.
Fortunately, there are bills in Congress with strong bipartisan support, H.R. 2807 and S. 526 respectively, which would make the enhanced tax incentive permanent. U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane and Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, have signed on as co-sponsors of the House bill. Especially in the face of the population surge to come, Congress should support these bills.
Landowners, voluntarily working with the state’s 24 land trusts, are protecting Washington’s great natural resources for our future. Let’s make the enhanced tax incentive permanent.
Glenn Lamb is the executive director of Columbia Land Trust, based in Vancouver, Wash.