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Conservation Easements Redraw the Western Landscape

Map of conservation easements in the United States

Conservation easements from a national database, plotted over federal lands. Bill Lane Center for the American West

By Geoff McGhee and Felicity Barringer

Conservation easements allow landowners to permanently give up development rights while retaining access to their land. The owner contracts with a nonprofit land trust or government agency, which takes over management of the land and the enforcement of development restrictions.

If the land is sold, the restrictions remain in place. In addition to protecting the land, the landowner – the "grantor" – can also receive tax write-offs if the development restrictions fall into approved conservation categories.

While land trusts date back to the late 19th century, they have gained widespread popularity over the last two or three decades as landowners have become more concerned about the loss of open space, habitats, farmland, and recreational spaces.

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership.

The '...& the West' blog offers a look at conservation easements nationwide, with a focus on western states that have been heavily affected by energy and mineral development, as well as loss of habitats, farmland and ranchland.

Conservation Easements, by the Numbers

Conservation easements are less common in the western United States than in the East, with its higher percentage of privately held land and less open space. But as a related article explores, conservation easements may become a tool for western landowners to block mining and energy exploration under their land. Here, the state of easements “up top” in western states. Click or hover on a state name to zoom the map below to that state.

Western State Conservation Easements, in Acres

The Regional Picture

The below map, using data from the National Conservation Easement Database, displays all the easements that have (1) been approved for public display and (2) that have digital outlines supplied by landowners or managers. The categories of land shown below reflect the Internal Revenue Service's categories eligible for tax-break eligibility: lands that provide outdoor recreation for the general public; protect animals, plants or ecosystems; that preserve open spaces - for either farming, forestry, or ranching; provide scenic enjoyment for the general public; or preserve historic land or structures.



Purpose of Easement (IRS Code)

Environmental System
Historic Preservation
Open Space - Farm
Open Space - Forest
Open Space - Ranch
Open Space - Other
Recreation or Education
Unknown


Sources: National Conservation Easement Database, MapBox, Open Street Map
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Conservation Underground: Researchers Propose a Way to Block Subsurface Exploitation

A new paper suggests that “mineral easements” might provide a tool to block hydraulic fracking and the oil and gas wells that have been sources of fear and opposition from New York to California.

 

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