Conservation easements are a clever ruse to grab more land, especially rural land, for control by the government and ultimately the United Nations. Republicans who sponsor and support bills to make such easements easier should think twice.
Why conservation easements?
Conservation easements began as a way to keep a large landed estate in the family. Usually, if an estate is entirely in the land, an heir must sell the land to pay the estate tax. Instead, the owner sells a conservation easement to a “land trust,” for a lump sum of cash (if he is poor) or a key tax advantage (if he is wealthy). In return, he signs away his development rights and often must protect various plants and animals on his land, keep the space open for farming and recreation, and so on.
If the owner never wants to see anyone sub-divide the land and build houses on it, conservation easements make sense. If he wants his family to keep the land after he dies, conservation easements make sense. If he needs some cash right away, conservation easements make sense.
Or so he thinks.
What can go wrong with conservation easements?
Bicyclists ride past a plot of farmland. Photo: Lee Iazzarello, CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic License
The original land trust might intend the best for the land and even its owner. After all, the trust wants a long-term relationship. But suppose it doesn’t? Then the trust might sell its interest to the government for a quick profit.
Then the government will change the rules, and demand more than the trust ever did. Some of the things that the government might demand, would cost the owner more. The owner has no recourse, because he sold his rights away to the original trust. (A third party can challenge the conservation easement, but only if that third party issues its own conservation easements. So the landowner has no recourse, nor can his neighbor help.)
Eventually, complying with the government’s demands might become so expensive that the owner winds up losing his land, or having to sell the land at a markdown.
These facts are especially relevant because Congress is debating another bill to give incentives to owners to sell conservation easements. The bill (HR 1964, the Conservation Easement Incentive Act of 2011) makes permanent a tax deduction, now about to expire, for landowners who sell conservation easements. They can deduct the loss of fair market value that the land suffers on account of the easement. Anyone in the House of Representatives who values American liberty should vote this bill down.
Here is why: Conservation easements are short-term “fixes” for financial problems that are either:
Due to other policies that the government ought to rescind. Chief among these: the estate and gift tax. The only moral rate for either of those taxes is: Zero!
In fact, conservation easements are a trap. When the government buys the easement, it springs the trap. The true goal of the government is not to manage land effectively, but to un-manage it. Specifically, the plan, under UN Agenda 21, is to return the land to the wild. Once the government holds the bundle of rights that a conservation easement includes, the government can squeeze the owner into selling, and then hand it over to the United Nations.
Landowners have looked for quick fixes to their money problems for too long. It is costing them dearly and can cost the larger society even more. If landowners want to fix their tax and other problems, they need to fight to repeal the taxes that cause the problems. They should not sign their rights away in a scheme to impose eminent domain by fraud.