Incentives for Land Conservation Increase by Jim Daus
What will our valleys look like 100 years from now? For decades, many ranchers and other landowners have permanently conserved some of the important land in Eagle County. Some of our elk calving grounds, native cutthroat trout habitat, golden and bald eagle roosts, and mule deer critical winter range have been forever preserved in the process. Hunting and fishing, wildlife viewing, pristine scenic vistas, and ranching as a way of life have all benefited as has our tourist-based economy.
However, much more critical land remains to be preserved. Relatively little of our county’s vast public lands contain this extremely important wildlife habitat which is typically found in our lowest river valleys. Such land is virtually all privately owned, relatively level and accessible and, therefore, vulnerable to being someday subdivided for development.
Indeed, of the approximately 22,000 acres of permanently conserved private land in Eagle County, only about 2,450 acres along the I-70 corridor, like the Eagle River Preserve in Edwards, have any form of permanent conservation. Already developers and growing towns have claimed over 80% of the Eagle River and Vail Valleys. Specifically, of the 52.5 miles of the I-70 corridor from East Vail to the county line west of Dotsero, only about 9.5 miles are not already developed or slated for development. Ultimately, most of these lands do not or will not have any significant conservation value for wildlife, river habitat, or scenic purposes. Those pathways for wildlife and unbridled rivers will be forever constrained… there’s virtually no going back.
Development, while necessary to accommodate an ever-expanding population and drive a growth-oriented economy, changes the landscape forever. So, while the public servants at our county’s Community Development Department do what they can to guide development wisely, conservation can be a great tool to help preserve our most cherished places.
Incentives for land conservation have seen bipartisan support in Congress for decades. Just before the holidays, Congress changed a law to make additional tax deductions for the donations of conservation easements permanent. For the first time in years, Landowners can be certain that after the process of conserving their land is completed (it can take months or even years), the additional tax benefits will be available.
If a landowner donates a permanent conservation easement to Eagle Valley Land Trust on their land, the additional federal incentives allow the landowner to enjoy significantly reduced federal income taxes for up to 16 years. Most other types of donations only allow a maximum of 6 years. Further, the amount of annual deduction has been increased from 30% to 50% of the landowner’s adjusted gross income.
Eagle Valley Land Trust expects the pace of land conservation will increase as a result. Further, the State of Colorado recently increased the cap on its conservation easement incentive program from $375,000 per donation to $1.5 million per donation. Landowners have already taken notice.
If these incentives are not enough to induce a landowner to permanently conserve their land, then the Land Trust can help the landowner apply for significant grants to help directly compensate the landowner for conserving the land. Sources of such grant funding include the Eagle County Open Space program and Great Outdoors Colorado.
Choosing to conserve their land permanently, and how to conserve it, is a very important decision for a landowners and their families. The right of a landowner to make that decision free from pressure and judgment is as sacred to the Land Trust as are the private property rights of any landowner. The decision to conserve land may help them send their kids to college, or pay off loans that are preventing the family business from truly flourishing. It could allow them to purchase additional land to make the productivity of their land more viable. It can also so greatly reduce their estate value that they no longer need to worry about whether their children will be able to inherit the land due to inability to pay estate taxes.
Eagle Valley Land Trust was founded in 1981 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit environmental conservation organization and is state certified and nationally accredited. The Land Trust currently holds 29 parcels and over 7,550 acres of protected lands under conservation easements in Eagle County, Colorado. These properties stretch from East Vail to the entrance of Glenwood Canyon and from Tennessee Pass near Leadville to Yarmony Mountain near the Routt County border. For more information about EVLT, please visit www.evlt.org.
Jim Daus is the Executive Director of Eagle Valley Land Trust.