March 04, 2014

Land Trust Laments

Posted on March 4, 2014 by Dennis Krumholz

I sit on the board of a land conservation organization. Recently, the Director of Land Preservation for our board made a presentation in which she lamented the negative impact that the 2008 recession continues to have on land conservation activities at the organization. Funding by governments, grant-making organizations and private donors have been reduced, and local governments – one key source of land preservation – are themselves cutting their conservation budgets. Our organization has preserved a steadily decreasing amount of acreage since 2008, and the amount of funds spent on acquiring lands has been diminishing.

Many questions presented themselves following this sobering presentation, including whether a similar situation obtains at other land conservation groups, and what might be done until the economy turns the corner and, hopefully, funding is restored to pre-recession levels.

My research has been neither exhaustive nor scientific, and my sources largely anecdotal, but land conservation in other areas of the country seems to have been a mixed bag during this recessionary period, with some regions able to preserve a significant amount of land. In areas as diverse as the Chesapeake Bay, western North Carolina and large swathes of the West, for example, conservation has been robust in recent years. According to the Land Trust Alliance, more land has been preserved in recent years in states such as California, Colorado and Montana than has been developed. Following the housing crisis of 2008, development has been substantially reduced, lowering land prices and thus presenting an opportunity for conservation organizations to purchase land at lower prices.

Yet, at the same time, many conservation groups lack the resources to take advantage of these opportunities. Government-funded trust funds have been depleted by reduced federal and state budgets, and land conservation organizations’ endowments similarly have dropped as a result of fewer donations and, at least until recently, a depressed stock market. Thus, while land is less costly, less money may be available to take advantage of the opportunity, a classic catch-22. What a shame to be losing the chance to preserve environmentally sensitive land while development pressures are reduced. It is only a matter of time before the economy improves, increasing land values and making preservation more costly.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal illustrates one impact of tightening local budgets on conservation. As noted in that article, cases are pending before state supreme courts in Maine and Massachusetts in which local governments have assessed real estate taxes on land held for conservation, arguing that they provide insufficient public benefit to warrant full tax exempt status. One or more judgments in favor of the municipalities, while nominally increasing their coffers, would have a further negative impact on conservation by imposing an additional financial burden on conservation organizations.

Until the economy improves, and monies again become available for preservation, land trusts need to become creative in their strategies. For example, conservation easements are less costly than acquiring the fee itself, and often come without management costs because the landowners typically continue to use their land for timber, grazing or agriculture. Instead of purchasing larger tracts, our organization has been shifting its resources in recent years to buying largely residential properties that are subject to frequent flooding. Preservation of these parcels, while typically small in size, serves a vital function by allowing families to relocate to higher and safer grounds and by returning flood-prone areas to a relatively undeveloped state, thereby reducing both human impacts and further downstream flooding.

Let’s hope funding for land conservation – government as well as private and non-profit – increases in the coming years to enable the preservation of sensitive and ecologically-valuable lands for years and years to come.

Tags: land conservation


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