New law helps land conservancies

Staff Report | Cortez Journal

A new state law enacted by Gov. Bill Ritter on June 5 supports Colorado’s incentives for preserving unique natural and agricultural lands by sending a strong message that abuses of the program won’t be tolerated, according to conservation advocates, according to a statement from the Montezuma Land Conservancy.

Ritter signed House Bill 1353 at a State Capitol ceremony with the legislation’s sponsors, House Majority Leader Alice Madden and Sen. Jim Isgar, as well as land conservation organizations including the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, the Nature Conservancy, the Colorado Conservation Trust, and the Trust for Public Land, according to the statement. Montezuma Land Conservancy participated on the task force that shaped the legislation.

“The new law keeps Colorado at the forefront of national efforts to encourage conservation of one-of-a-kind landscapes,” Ritter said in the prepared statement. “But it creates tough new safeguards against abuses of Colorado’s conservation easement tax credits. Colorado will continue to support legitimate land conservation, but we will not tolerate schemes to exploit the program for financial gain.”

Isgar, D-Hesperus, promoted the new law.

“This law preserves the conservation easement tax credit program because of all the good it’s done to preserve agricultural lands and to give farmers and ranchers an option to stay on their farms,” Isgar said in the statement. “It’s important to take these steps to preserve this cost-effective program and the state budget.”

Conservation easements are considerably less expensive than buying land outright, according to the Montezuma Land Conservancy. Conservation easements are sold or donated by private landowners to nonprofit or governmental entities to guarantee that a parcel of land will never be developed. The land remains in private ownership, and property owners may continue using their land as they have — for example, for farming or ranching.

“The Colorado legislation will increase accountability and oversight of the state’s conservation easement program while maintaining the tax incentives, which have helped preserve a total of more than 1.2 million acres of working farms and ranches, river corridors, wildlife habitat and scenic open lands across Colorado,” said Jill Ozarski, executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, which represents 54 land trusts, conservation groups and government entities touching every corner of the state.

According to the Montezuma Land Conservancy statement, the bill’s tougher standards include increased accountability for conservation easement appraisals, a certification program for the groups that hold conservation easements, strengthened oversight and enforcement of the state tax credit, and the creation of a Conservation Easement Oversight Commission.

“The Colorado Conservation tax credit has helped 40 families preserve over 10,000 acres of land in Montezuma and Dolores counties,” David Nichols of the Montezuma Land Conservancy said in the statement. “This new law is designed to ensure that landowners donating good conservation easements like those in Montezuma and Dolores counties can receive this financial benefit while stopping those transactions that were abusing the system. Keeping the financial benefit for local farmers and ranchers is very important as it can sometimes make it possible for families to afford to keep their farm rather than have to sell it.”

The new Colorado law comes close on the heels of new federal incentives for land conservation. On May 22, Congress enacted a new Farm Bill, which renewed and expanded federal tax incentives for land conservation, are retroactive to the beginning of the year and will last through 2009.

The incentive, which applies to a landowner’s federal income tax, will do the following:

  • Raise the annual limit on the deduction a donor can take for donating a voluntary conservation agreement from 30 percent of their income in any year to 50 percent.
  • Allow qualifying farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100 percent of their income.
  • Increase the number of years over which a donor can take deductions from six to 16 years.

Landowner donations to conservation organizations known as land trusts have resulted in millions of acres of working lands and natural areas being conserved for the future. According to the Land Trust Alliance, many conservation groups reported an annual doubling of the number of conservation agreements completed in 2007, in response to the same incentive that had expired in January. Land trusts in America have together saved more than 36 million acres from development, an area the size of New England.ntezuma Land Conservancy was able to assist 12 farmers and ranchers conserve more than 2,700 acres through the use of conservation easements while these increased incentives were in effect in 2006 and 2007.

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