Landmark Conservation Legislation Passed

Congress Makes Permanent a Tax Incentive Supporting Land Conservation 

Great news for land conservation!  Last month, with tremendous bipartisan support, Congress made permanent the enhanced conservation easement incentive act, encouraging landowners to permanently protect their land. The Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization working to save the places people love by strengthening land conservation across America, has been working to make this incentive permanent for over a decade.

The Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization working to save the places people love by strengthening land conservation across America, today praised Congress for voting to make permanent a tax incentive supporting land conservation.

“The importance of this vote — and this incentive — cannot be overstated,” said Rand Wentworth, the Alliance’s president. “This is the single greatest legislative action in decades to support land conservation. It states, unequivocally, that we as a nation treasure our lands and must conserve their many benefits for all future generations.”

In a strong bipartisan action, the House voted 318-109 and the Senate voted 65-33 to pass the bills that included the tax incentive.

Farmers, ranchers, the public and generations of future Americans will directly benefit from the incentive that encourages landowners to place a conservation easement on their land to protect important natural, scenic and historic resources. The Alliance led its more than 1,100 member land trusts and 5 million supporters through a collaborative, multi-year campaign to secure the incentive’s permanency.

“As we celebrate this landmark moment in land conservation, we are immensely grateful to our many champions in Congress, our countless individual and institutional allies, and all who tirelessly worked toward this pivotal day,” Wentworth said. “This vote represents an unqualified congressional endorsement of our long-held belief: It is in all our best interests to permanently protect important natural, scenic and historic resources for public benefit.”

First enacted in 2006, the incentive is directly responsible for conserving more than 2 million acres of America’s natural outdoor heritage. Lands placed into conservation easements continue to be farmed, grazed, hunted or used for outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation, and these lands remain on county tax rolls, strengthening local economies.

Congress made the incentive permanent as part of a broad, year-end deal the White House supports. Once signed into law, the incentive will be applied retroactively to start Jan. 1, 2015. An earlier version of the incentive expired Dec. 31, 2014.

“As much as this moment energizes me and all who support land conversation, I know our work is not done,” said Andrew Bowman, who will become president of the Alliance when Wentworth retires Feb. 10. “The Alliance has cultivated in Washington and beyond a nonpartisan enthusiasm for land conservation and will build on that consensus to generate essential and lasting support for conservation.”

The incentive advanced through Congress as part of the America Gives More Act, a package of tax incentives to encourage charitable giving. It passed the House earlier this year, 279-137. A standalone version of the incentive, the Conservation Easement Incentive Act, earned 52 Senate sponsors this year. The agreement announced today also encourages donations to food banks and facilitates charitable deductions from IRAs.

“The bipartisan Conservation Easement Incentive Act provides private land owners an important tool to conserve our state’s precious natural resources, increase outdoor recreation opportunities and preserve our proud tradition of ranching without facing onerous regulations. This is an important policy for Nevada, and I am pleased to see it included in the final tax deal,” said Sen. Dean Heller (NV), also a lead sponsor.

“Our farmers and ranchers are some of the best stewards of our land,” said Sen. Stabenow (MI), a lead sponsor of the conservation provision. “That's why I led a successful bipartisan effort to make this important deduction permanent, so more landowners can take part in conserving our land, water and wildlife habitats. This is a win for taxpayers, a win for farmers, and it’s a win for our environment.”

“This commonsense, bipartisan legislation is about supporting farmers who want to preserve our nation’s most cherished natural resources for future generations,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (PA), lead sponsor of the House bill to make the incentive permanent. “Since 2006, conservation easements have conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of America’s farmland and open space for hunting, fishing, hiking and locally-sourced food production.”

“Conservation easements have encouraged landowners across our county to conserve millions of acres of farm lands and scenic open spaces — so we know they work,” said Rep.  Mike Thompson (CA), lead Democrat on the House bill to make the easement incentive permanent. “By making this conservation tool permanent, landowners will have the certainty they need to preserve and protect even more property and natural resources for future generations.”

How the Enhanced Easement Incentive Works

The enhanced incentive helps landowners of modest means choose conservation by:

  • Raising the maximum deduction a donor can take for donating a conservation easement from 30% of their adjusted gross income (AGI) in any year to 50%;
  • Allowing qualified farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100% of their AGI;
  • Increasing the number of years over which a donor can take deductions from 6 to 16 years.

Without the enhanced easement incentive, an agricultural landowner earning $50,000 a year who donated a conservation easement worth $1 million could take a total of no more than $90,000 in tax deductions! Under the enhanced incentive, that landowner can take as much as $800,000 in tax deductions – still less than the full value of their donation, but a significant increase.