The Importance of Understanding Conservation Easements and What They Mean for Potential Buyers

Conservation easements have been around since the 1930s, initially used by the federal government to protect scenic land. However, they gained popularity among the general public after becoming tax deductible in 1969 due to the Tax Reform Act of 1969.  

The concept behind an easement is straightforward: it allows conservation-minded investors and landowners to safeguard open spaces, working ranches, and ecologically significant areas for future generations while also providing financial benefits. The urgency to conserve our precious land is evident, as the mountain west has lost millions of acres of agricultural land in the last decade alone. For instance, Wyoming lost an estimated 500,000 acres last year, which had historically served as a way of life for many families and provided critical habitats and migration corridors.

Over the years, a significant amount of wilderness and agricultural land has been placed under easements. Wyoming Public Media reported in 2023 that there were some 40 million acres of privately owned conservation easement lands nationally. However, it is worth noting that only 1% of Wyoming land is under a conservation easement, while in Colorado, 6.6% of private lands are under easements, and in Montana, the number stands at 3.6%. With numerous opportunities to conserve land in the West, it is only natural for landowners to contemplate the value of creating a conservation easement. To understand the benefits better, let’s delve into how it works in Wyoming.

  • In Wyoming, donating a conservation easement to a certified land trust, such as the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust (WSGLT), or a government agency allows for federal tax deductions. 
  • In the case of a purchased easement in Wyoming, WSGLT could acquire up to 75% of the total conservation easement value, with the remainder being the donated portion compensated through tax incentives. More info

When considering purchasing a property that already has easements, potential buyers must make decisions. Will the easement hinder planned projects? What kind of improvements are allowed? How will the management of the property be affected? Our friends at WSGLT, for whom I  serve as a board member with, has a great FAQ for us that goes into greater detail about the differences between donated and purchased easements and the effects on the property with an easement that runs with the land.  Read it here. 

Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust specializes in easements dealing with agricultural land, they maintain a board of directors composed primarily of agricultural producers, are affiliated with Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and are the only Wyoming-based agricultural land trust.

Another resource to consider is The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) run by USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service “provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits” in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Wyoming, of course, is not the only state with conservation easement programs. Here’s a look at just some of the organizations facilitating easements in other states in the region:

  • Wyoming: The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust focuses specifically on conserving agricultural lands, while the University of Wyoming offers a Conservation Toolkit for state landowners.
  • Colorado: Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust is an organization that strives to conserve Colorado’s western heritage and working landscapes for the benefit of future generations.
  • Utah: The organization Utah Open Lands works to  permanently protect land in the state by acquiring title or trust of a conservation easement. 
  • Montana: The Montana Land Alliance has worked with landowners to negotiate nearly 1,000 conservation easements on over 1.2 million acres of land in the state. The Montana Association of Land Trusts is comprised of 12 nonprofit land trusts that support excellence in private voluntary land conservation in the state.
  • Idaho: The Idaho Coalition of Land Trusts is a group of 20 nonprofit land trust organizations and affiliate members working on private land conservation and voluntary conservation throughout the state.

Given all these resources, it’s no surprise that a growing number of potential buyers ask us about easements. It’s also a popular subject on our website. For example, The Myths Surrounding Conservation Easements was one of the top five most downloaded podcasts on the Mirr Ranch Group website in 2023 (Listen here) That podcast was inspired by an essay in the Colorado Sun that highlighted some of the misinformation surrounding conservation easements.

There’s a lot to learn when it comes to determining the merits of a conservation easement. Conservation tax credit systems are complex, and you should always consult with experts. At Mirr Ranch Group we have extensive experience guiding landowners through the entire conservation process, so contact us if we can be of assistance.

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