Conservation Easement: The Primary Tool for the Government Acquisition of Rural Lands

This article will give you  valuable information on the potential risks of selling your private property rights through the use of a conservation easement.

The article can be found on Page 81-83 in a book called the Sustainable Development Manual. It was part of the materials included in the Stop Agenda 21 Kit, which can be purchased from the American Policy Center.

CONSERVATION EASEMENT: The Primary Tool for Government Acquisition of Rural Lands

By Clarice Ryan

The government is diligently devising strategies for putting more and more private property, especially large tracts of ranch and farm lands, under federal control and ownership. The Nature Conservancy carefully avoids public awareness of how successfully conservation easements contribute to socialistic conversion of private property to state held lands.

Property owners are naively unaware of the hidden motives and long term consequences of a contract that is in perpetuity. That term commits them and all future heirs and owners to unforeseen complications, costs and forced partnership. It greatly reduces the value of the property and even severely limits the ability to dispose of it. When this encumbered land changes ownership either through sale or inheritance, the easement runs with the title in perpetuity, forever.

Meanwhile the CE contract holder, usually a land trust responsible for monitoring and enforcing terms of the contract, may go out of business or simply decide to divest its interest to another qualified entity. If abandoned, the conservation easement assumes orphan status and is transferred with all rights and interest to some level of government.

Or, the management rights may be sold or transferred to another land trust, a governmental agency, a non-governmental organization (NGO), or an Indian Tribe, many of which are now affluent and see an opportunity to regain their historic tribal lands. The land owner will have no say in who he will be dealing with as a partner. A dissatisfied land owner may choose to sell out, but with limited market for very large tracts of encumbered land, the government or the land trust may be the only interested buyers.

The law in most states rule that the conservation easement contract is nullified when the holder of the easement also assumes title and ownership to the land. It is then free to sell the property or put it to productive, profitable use, even including development for housing. This is certainly contrary to the original intent of the owner who originally placed the land under easement in the belief that it would be forever protected from just such development. Obviously the “protection” does not work both ways.

In states where by law the easement contract cannot be dissolved by the land trust in this manner, an elaborate, lucrative system was developed using the land trust as a facilitator to make sales of large tracts of private property indirectly to government agencies. An easement is first applied to the property providing a significant federal tax write-off. Then the land trust purchases the CE land and flips it to one or more federal agencies or to the state, basically a paperwork transaction very profitable for the land trust.

Now with the federal government as owner, a CE restriction is in no way a limitation as it is directly in line with their goals of acquiring more private land to remove from production and human use, and may then be established as new wilderness and wildlife corridors. Profit-making timber harvest, mineral or oil exaction and grazing are banned.

This entire transaction financed by tax-payers stops all productive uses and removes it from the tax base at both county and federal levels. Expenses formerly born exclusively by the land owner, such as maintenance, insurance, weed removal and fire prevention/fighting, now fall to the federal government. With ever increasing expanses of federal landmass, expensive care and maintenance is very low on the priority list with available funding preferably directed to additional acquisitions. Diseased, weed infested, overgrown lands become fire prone threatening private property, health and safety of citizens and wildlife.

Statistics on the volume of private property under conservation easement is virtually and deliberately unavailable to the general public. Lawyers specializing in land trust law are instructed to be “secretive” about the amount and locations of land involved. They admit there are no standardized procedures for recording and data collection to provide an accurate data base or mapping at county or state levels. Nor is there any intent to provide such information in easily accessible usable form.

Within communities obscurity may protect against declining values of adjoining properties which would lower the tax base. However, knowledge of CE land locations is essential to planning and zoning in the provision of services, but the need for these is reduced anyway as land is increasingly locked up by conservation easements.

Meanwhile at the federal level conservation easements have become the primary tool for innocuous, deceptive acquisition of large expanses of rural land. Increased funding is provided for this purpose while sales strategies are perfected and marketing efforts increased. Unsuspecting groups of ranchers can be convinced to join their property together under conservation easement to form vast landscapes and corridors connecting existing grassland preserves and large blocks of federal lands.

Environmentalists promoting new endangered species use land trusts to administer and enforce regulations for wildlife protection and habitat designation. Rural property owners are experiencing restrictions and infringement by numerous federal agencies ruling over agricultural operations and practices which gradually force out small operators. Increasing financial stress is driving farmers and ranchers to land trusts offering temporary one-time only financial assistance and tax relief, little realizing they are subjecting themselves to even greater future financial difficulty from which there is no escape with land almost impossible to dispose of.

The federally legislated “land and water protection” scheme under the Sustainability concept of Agenda 21 has been carefully developed to be administered and legally enforce by land trust lawyers specializing in this field. Contracts without exception contain language holding the land owner responsible for all legal costs related to its enforcement, including attorney fees and costs of law suit. This alone should be a deterrent to signing such a document in perpetuity. It means that any disagreement concerning performance of the land owner in accordance with terms of the contract can be taken to court. Or on the other hand, possible injustices by the agencies will likely be unsuccessfully litigated, again with all costs being assumed by you, the plaintiff. You will not always be dealing with the pleasant, convincing sales person dedicated to making you feel “oh so noble” about committing your land to conservation. And remember, you are making permanent decisions for all future heirs and owners, forever. The contract you sign is embedded in legalize concrete.


Clarice Ryan is a journalist, activist and Independent Research Professional from Big Fork, Montana.

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