Protecting open lands through conservation easements
Commercial and residential expansion and development are some of the main culprits in the trend of disappearing farms and ranches across the country.
"In Oklahoma, roughly 30,000 acres of open lands are lost annually, and that rate is increasing," said Terry Bidwell, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension specialist and professor of natural resource ecology and management. "Often the most productive lands nearest our communities and the lands most valued for conservation and wildlife are under the most intense threat of development."
However, there are nonprofit groups and public agencies working to preserve open lands through conservation easements.
"Easements are voluntary restrictions by landowners to prevent conversion to nonagricultural uses," said Dave Engle, director of the Water Research and Extension Center, and Regents professor at OSU. "A conservation easement may protect such natural resources as prime soils, forests, water quality and scenic values."
These strictly voluntary easements offer an economically viable alternative to development by compensating, either through purchase or tax benefits, to landowners for the development rights they may choose to forego.
"Conservation easements are flexible documents and can be tailored to meet the needs of individual landowners, such as reserving a future home site," said Bidwell. "Many open space uses are generally permissible, including farming, ranching, hunting, fishing and other activities that don't damage the land's conservation values."
Donations of conservation easements are usually tax deductible at their appraised fair market value. They can be valuable estate planning tools for landowers who are passing on their land to children and grandchildren.
"When appraising the value of a conservation easement, a qualified appraiser must establish the property's 'highest and best use' value first," Engle said. "Second, the property's 'encumbered' value must be determined."
The difference between those two values is the appraised fair market value for the easement.
For additional information on conservations easements, visit www.landlegacy.net.