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What is a land trust?
Most land trusts are nonprofit, community organizations where people band together to preserve land that provides our communities with productive farm land, important fish and wildlife habitat, and places for people to recreate and enjoy nature. Land trusts can operate at local, state, or regional levels. Land trusts are not "trusts” in the legal sense. They may also be called "conservancies” or other descriptive names.
What makes a land trust different from other charities?
Land trusts are distinguished by their direct involvement in land transactions or management. Land trusts advise private landowners who want to preserve their land and protect what makes it special to their family and the community as a whole. Land trusts can purchase or accept donations of land, interests in land (for example, in the form of a conservation easement), or manage land owned by others. Land trusts may focus their efforts in a community, in a region, or on a particular type of resource. Follow these links to see a map of the Palouse Land Trust's service area and a description of our conservation programs.
What is a conservation easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement a willing landowner makes to permanently restrict the type and amount of development that may take place on his or her property in the future. Landowners grant conservation easements to protect their land from inappropriate development while retaining the rights of private ownership. The conservation easement does not necessarily exclude all development, but may restrict types of development that would be harmful to the public benefits the easement seeks to protect.
The landowner continues to own the property; he or she may sell it, live on it, use it, or leave it to heirs, but the agreed-upon restrictions remain with the land forever. The Land Trust accepts the responsibility for monitoring compliance with the easement agreement, however, the property remains in the owner’s hands and on the county property tax rolls. Granting of a conservation easement does not mean that the landowner must grant public access to his or her property.
Conservation easements can result in income tax and estate tax benefits, if the land qualifies under IRS criteria as providing a public benefit. For example, the IRS will consider land that is in active agricultural use and meets local governmental land-use policies in support of agriculture as land that provides a public benefit. The IRS also considers tax benefits for easement donations that conserve scenic open space, wildlife habitat, and land that provides public access for recreation or education, and/or historic site preservation. While the tax benefits are helpful, many people have found the greatest satisfaction in working with Land Trusts is the assurance that the land they cherish will always be protected.
What benefits are there in partnering with a land trust?
Land Trusts have many advantages as a vehicle for protecting land. Their nonprofit status brings them a variety of tax benefits. Donations to land trusts may qualify donors for income, estate, or gift tax savings. For example, when you own land, you also "own” many rights associated with it, such as the right to harvest timber, build structures, and so on. When you donate a conservation easement to a land trust, you permanently give up some of those rights. For example, you might give up the right to build additional residences, while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners are bound by the easement’s terms, so the value of the land decreases. If you donate a conservation easement that meets federal tax code requirements, the decrease in value caused by the easement can be treated as a charitable gift and deducted from your income tax.
Another advantage of land trusts is that, as private organizations, they can be more flexible and creative and can generally act more quickly than government agencies, since they are not as restrained by politics and procedures. Land trust representatives can negotiate with landowners confidentially, and quickly.
What responsibilities does the land trust assume when accepting an easement?
A land trust assumes the responsibility and legal right to enforce an easement. If a future owner or third party violates the easement - perhaps by erecting a building which the easement does not allow - the land trust will work to have the violation corrected. As a result, the land trust usually asks for a donation from the easement donor to offset the cost of future stewardship expenses.
Conservation easements have become an important mechanism to tailor conservation to the desires of the landowner. Over 4,000 parcels protecting more than 1.6 million acres are established across the U.S. The nation’s 1,100 local and regional land trusts hold about one half of this total. The Palouse Land Trust is pleased to be part of this effort.