Conservation 101: Land Trusts and Easements

by Braxton Taylor

We’ve all heard that buying land is a good investment because nobody is making any more of it. Today, in the face of rapidly expanding human development (and rising housing prices), that seems truer than ever.

But all this begs us to ask, who is buying land for conservation?

Land trusts or land conservancies are nonprofit organizations that work to conserve land. They do that by buying all or part of specific parcels that fit within their mission. In many cases, land trusts purchase land outright, but they may also purchase easements on land that separate the ownership of the land from the rights to develop it (more on that later). Typically, land trusts also conduct some restoration work and actively manage the properties in their portfolio.

Land trusts are regulated differently in each state, but many also strive to follow the best practices set by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. Because these institutions are so stringently regulated—and because accredited institutions are held to high standards—it’s relatively rare for new land trusts to be created. Likewise, it’s also incredibly rare for land trusts to go away. These organizations are often some of the longest-standing institutions in our communities.

What Happens to the Land?

Land trusts are just like an individual when it comes to owning property. They can plan to keep it in perpetuity, or they can sell it, having made any number of changes to it before the sale.

Management plans are typically developed and maintained for lands that will be held by the trust for long periods of time to ensure good stewardship of these assets. Land owned entirely by land trusts are typically open for some public access. Often, that includes access for hunting and fishing, but not always. According to the Land Trust Alliance, “80 percent of land trusts provide public access to their protected lands, according to the 2020 National Land Trust Census, amounting to 1.2 million acres of land and 9,761 miles of trails open to the public.”

Because land trusts can often move more quickly than the government, they are able to purchase land of significant conservation, historic, or recreation value until another entity – like a federal land management agency, a state, tribe, or municipality – can raise the money to buy the land. The Land and Water Conservation Fund that was fully funded through the Great American Outdoors Act is a major source of funds for purchasing new public lands.

Some land trusts will also sell land to private conservation or recreation buyers, but typically retain a conservation easement on the property when doing so.

What is a Conservation Easement?

Despite many Americans owning some form of property, real estate can be a complicated area of the law for all of us.

When you or I think of buying part of a parcel of land, we often think about breaking up geographic parts—like a rancher selling tillable and forested land separately from the farmhouse. However, land trusts think about plots of land in layers, with sub-surface mineral rights being separate from development rights, being separate from grazing rights, and on, and on, with a nearly infinite number of different rights associated with each deed. This is where the rules start to get complicated.

In the last 75 years, land trusts and governments have increasingly partnered with willing private landowners to conserve land without transferring ownership. A conservation easement—or any easement, for that matter—separates some of these rights of use from the title to the land.

Conservation easements take many forms and can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the buyer and the seller. Typically, conservation land trusts seek to buy development rights from willing sellers, which puts boundaries around how the land may be used.

For example, a land trust might buy the development rights to a ranch that provides extraordinary elk habitat. The rancher can keep on ranching, gets paid for selling their development rights, and the land trust has secured that habitat in perpetuity.

Easements may also be permanent, which are often the best for wildlife conservation, or temporary, which are still good but don’t offer the long-term assurances that a permanent easement does. Further, landowners aren’t paid as much for temporary easements as they are for perpetual agreements. Land trusts also conduct monitoring work to ensure the terms of easements that they own are being met.

What Kind of Land Trust Should I be Looking For?

Land trusts come in all shapes and sizes, each with a different scope and mission. Land trusts that work at a national or regional scope typically have more resources for large projects, while local land trusts tend to be more community-focused. There are 1,281 land trusts nationwide that work in 93% of U.S. counties. That means that they serve all manner of communities ranging from the most population-dense urban areas to the most sparsely populated rural communities.

In Montana, where I live, we have several different forms, all working towards similar goals.

“Land trusts and public agencies work cooperatively with landowners to conserve private land,” Executive Director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts, Marcus Strange, said. “Over the last forty years, Montana land trusts have become a national leader in private land conservation. In a rapidly evolving West, land trusts stand in defense of the best parts of our state and way of life.”

Of course, land trusts aren’t just focused on wildlife and wild places. They exist for a plethora of reasons because of the many benefits that come from conserving lands. For hunters, land trusts are likely best known for their work in rural areas where they are adept at conserving forested lands, protecting family farms and ranches, and helping solve water quality and quantity issues. However, these organizations also lead efforts to create recreational access and build and maintain community parks and trails.

Further, land trusts rarely work alone. They often partner with feed stores, local businesses, cooperative extension agents, schools, hospitals, and other nonprofits to achieve their specific missions.

“The work of land trusts supports and enhances open space conservation, traditional agriculture, trails, parks, and wildlife habitat,” Strange continued. “Land trusts infuse vitality into local economies and keep our communities the places we love to call home. In short, the land trusts I have the privilege of representing are in the business of keeping Montana, Montana.”

If you’re thinking about selling a piece of family property—or if you’re looking to acquire a new hunting or conservation property, it’s worth having a conversation with a representative of your local land trust. It can be a daunting task to figure out what to do with your property, or that of a loved one, but these institutions are here to help walk you through every step of the issue you’re up against.

In the policy world, every issue starts with a real person facing a real problem, and this case is no different. In this case, a guy named Chris was having a heck of a time figuring out what to do with his family farm, but he knew he needed to do something and thought a land trust would be a good place to start.

In his note to MeatEater, he said: “I can’t really think of many things that would be more beneficial to the community and wild places than ensuring the longevity of our current wild places. They’re being bulldozed faster and faster. I fear that one day, after we are gone, OUR wild place will someday disappear to development…I’d like that not to happen.”

I’d like that not to happen too, Chris, and I’m glad we have so many high-quality land trusts to help all of us out with that. If you’re interested in conserving some land, use this map from the Land Trust Alliance to contact your local trust today and get started planning the future of your land.

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