Saving irreplaceable lands responsibly

By Dave Nichols & Nina Williams

Recent coverage of Colorado’s conservation easement tax credit has raised questions about this important program that is helping to conserve irreplaceable lands in Colorado. No one is more concerned about possible abuses of the tax-credit program than the Montezuma Land Conservancy (MLC) and other responsible land trusts. Colorado’s land trusts must demonstrate that we are using conservation easements for real public benefit. That is why we are working to ensure that tax benefits go only to worthy transactions.

A conservation easement is a voluntary but legally binding agreement that restricts development on a piece of land. By limiting future uses, conservation easements protect important conservation values of public benefit including agricultural land, scenic open space and wildlife habitat. In doing so, they typically reduce the value of the land. Colorado offers a transferable tax credit for qualifying conservation easements to help offset this lost value, often offering landowners a way to continue farming or ranching traditions. MLC has worked with several local landowners who have sold the tax credit to pay down debt and enable them to keep land in agricultural use, rather than selling it for subdivision.

Colorado’s tax incentives for landowners who donate a conservation easement have provided substan tial benefit to Colorado citizens, making the state a national leader in conserving its agricultural land and open space. Hundreds of strong conservation easements throughout Colorado protect farms and ranchland, scenic and historic areas, wildlife habitat, and unique natural areas that other wise could have been lost forever to development.

MLC has partnered with more than 40 local families to conserve over 9,000 acres of land. The majority of this land is in active farm or ranch use, supporting our local agricultural economy. The land in these easements retains its rural character, contributing to the appeal that attracts tourists to the area and to the quality of life for our residents.

Land conservation tax credits do carry a cost to the state but we believe that protecting agriculture and natural heritage is worth the investment. These tax incentives may have attracted a small handful of promoters who do not guarantee that their conservation easements provide significant conservation and public benefit. We support current state efforts to crack down on any abuses.

The Montezuma Land Conservancy and the vast majority of Colorado land trusts are committed to respecting the spirit and letter of conservation law. Earlier this year we supported a new law (HR 1361) that increased standards and accountability for the state’s conservation easement program.

MLC is participating in the Colorado Conservation Easement Tax Credit Task Force convened by Sen. Jim Isgar and Rep. Alice Madden to recommend further reform of this program. Sen. Isgar, who has been a strong leader on this issue, said “We recognize the problem and are committed to saving this important program.” MLC will work together with these leaders to ensure that we can continue to partner with local landowners to conserve important open lands in Montezuma and Dolores counties.

Nina Williams and Dave Nichols are co-executive directors of the Montezu ma Land Conservancy.

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