Land conservation spurs education effort

By Elizabeth Cernota Clark

In 2002, with property values rising as dramatically as urban development, and with no children to inherit their land, Bruce and Bernice Jordan arranged with the Hill County Land Trust for an easement to protect their 132-acre farm in the Texas Hill County.

The idea, says Mr. Jordan, is “so the animals can live in peace…no shooting on the place.”

Private landowners throughout the U.S. are using conservation easements to protect their land from subdivisions and commercial development, and qualify for federal tax breaks.

Despite some legislators’ zeal to eliminate federal tax breaks for conservation easements, Americans’ passion for habitat preservation continues to grow.

Nationally, roughly 1,500 land trusts oversee conservation easements, 40 percent of them run by volunteers, says Jim Wyman, director of communications for the Land Trust Alliance.

In Texas alone, 10 new land trusts were formed between 2000 and 2004, says Carolyn Vogel, coordinator for the Texas Land Trust Program, a program of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

But some developers have twisted the concept of a conservation easement to “conserve” golf courses.

And loose oversight in other cases has led to abuse of conservation agreements.

And in still other cases, property owners have inflated or under-appraised their land values to suit their own purposes.

Because of the growing number and variety of private land trusts across the U.S., the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based clearinghouse, is responding to a growing need for volunteer education.

The Alliance is developing a $3.5 million training and accreditation program for its member organizations.

In April, the group announced a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to advance that goal.

Land trusts and easements have been under scrutiny of late, says Mark Shaffer, the foundation’s program director for the environment.

Acknowledging there have been abuses, he says education and self-governance will benefit private land trusts.

“We recognize the land trust community is a critical player in wildlife conservation in the U.S.,” he says. “And easements are essential tools to achieving the level of habitat conservation for wildlife that we think is going to be necessary.”

Rand Wentworth, president of the Alliance, says the training and accreditation program will be “based on the highest ethical, fiscal and governance standards for land conservation organizations receiving private land donations.”

Since the April announcement of the Doris Duke grant, 15 other foundations have contributed their support.

“Over the next six months we will be raising funds to implement this program,” Wentworth says.

In the wake of hearings last April by Senate Finance Committee, he says, many foundations “recognized that this is a pivotal moment for land conservation, and that accreditation is an effective way to verify compliance with ethical and legal standards.”

Equally important, he says, the Land Trust Alliance will launch a national training program to help land trusts to improve their practices and prepare for accreditation.

Along with their quest for private-sector support, the Alliance and member organizations are urging legislators to support strong enforcement of existing tax laws in order to prevent abuse of conservation easements.

Accreditation, training and self-governance will meet two important goals, Wentworth says.

The goals, he says, are “to build strong and enduring land trusts, and to create a seal of approval that publicly recognizes their good work.”

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