Considered by many as a founding father of wildlife ecology and land preservation, Aldo Leopold believed “conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves in the public interest.” The conservation movement he helped inspire is now debating the appropriateness of those rewards when the land is owned by a real-estate partnership.
I labor on the front lines of this debate as the head of a non-profit land trust working diligently to preserve access to nature throughout Georgia for our children and grandchildren. Our land trust accepts conservation easement donations from individuals and partnerships. No matter the ownership structure, the land remains privately owned and our stewardship ensures the easement’s permanent development restrictions are followed forever.
Partnership-owned donations are under scrutiny because outside investors in the group can receive federal tax deductions worth more than their initial investment. Often the original owners would earn more money simply by selling their land to the highest bidder who would plow it over for condos, mine for valuable minerals or develop it some other way. Yet some groups are opposed to the financial gain conserving partnerships receive when opting not to develop.
I have seen firsthand the positive role that land-owning real-estate partnerships can play conserving forests, safeguarding rivers, sheltering wildlife and preserving natural resources here in Georgia. A few examples:
- Habitat protection for a keystone species. Besides being Georgia’s state reptile, the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species because it digs deep burrows that are shared by more than 300 distinct kinds of animals. The species thrive in areas of the Southeast that are now threatened by development. A real-estate partnership is helping our land trust conserve 3,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat in southern Georgia.
- A preserve against spreading disease among deer. Deer populations are threatened by chronic wasting disease, a contagious neurological disorder that results in loss of appetite, abnormal behavior and death. With the support of a partnership, our land trust conserved 600 acres in central Georgia where the original landowner maintains a preserve for deer unaffected by this illness. She works with state wildlife officials and academics in Georgia and Colorado to study the disease and reintroduce healthy deer in other parts of the country.
- Mountain views vs. mines. A landowner in the mountains of northwest Georgia sits atop 73 million tons of valuable limestone reserves. But living just six miles away from a quarry, the owner struggled with the realization that a mining operation would forever destroy the character of this property. Our land trust and a group of partnerships will conserve over 400 acres of this land and preserve the side of a picturesque mountain.
And I could go on with other examples about how partnerships are helping us to conserve three miles of pristine river frontage, safeguard coastal marshland and timber tracts, prevent a landfill opposed by a local community, create an 18-acre park in the City of Atlanta, and many more.
In all, our land trust conserved 3,000 acres in 2016 and expects to preserve far more this year thanks to private capital from real-estate partnerships. It is my hope that Georgia can serve as a model for private conservation easements and help other states find innovative ways to drive private dollars into conserving land for the public good.
As a land trust leader, my top priority is to ensure that proposed conservation projects are worthy of conserving. The easement donations our nonprofit has accepted from partnerships clearly address fundamental conservation values and provide public benefits. The law also requires that qualified professional appraisers determine the value of any tax deductions claimed by landowners, subject to further review by the Internal Revenue Service. Many real-estate partnerships order two qualified appraisals and use the lower value.
However, abuse occurs in every corner of human activity and land conservation is no exception. That’s why policymakers, the land-trust community and other stakeholders must come together to seek solutions to eliminate rare instances of abuse while still encouraging all forms of conservation.
Our land trust can attest to the high-quality conservation that is being accomplished thanks to real-estate partnerships. Done properly, these easement donations can be a win for all involved: the public, the original landowner, the partnership investors and the government. In this spirit, we should honor Leopold’s original environmental vision by rewarding those private landowners who reject lucrative development options in favor of permanently conserving land for future generations.
Katie Pace is executive director of the Southern Conservation Trust, a nonprofit land trust that oversees conservation easements throughout Georgia, and a member of the Partnership for Conservation. Learn more at www.partnershipforconservation.org.