Working Lands

Conservation and Agricultural Easements

Photo: Snowy Owl. Photo: Kimberley Caruso.

Conservation and agricultural land easements are a voluntary, free-market, incentive-based approach to the permanent conservation of natural, agricultural, and historical resources on private land. With a conservation and agricultural land easement, the owner voluntarily restricts future uses of their land (like development) and relies on the organization to monitor the land and enforce the easement's provisions if necessary.

Learn the facts about easements and hear directly from landowners in this video:

From the Grass Up (2021) - Full Film from Eric Ian Photo & Film on Vimeo.

Landowner Benefits

There are many benefits for landowners that choose to utilize a conservation and agricultural land easement. In addition to it being their right as the owner of the land, it provides financial benefits in the form of a payment, tax deduction, or both. However, there are other financial benefits such as: 

  • They protect our agricultural economy by assuring that land will always be available. By preventing subdivision, ALEs keep ranches at a size that is economically viable for ranching. As one of our landowners put it, "you can't make a living off of small parcels."
  • If you're a farmer or rancher trying to pass the land to the next generation, this has been used to help a parent to sell the land to a son or daughter at an agricultural price while retiring on the proceeds from the sale of development rights.
  • Habitat restoration can be costly yet is important for many landowners, so the combination of a conservation and agricultural land easement and habitat restoration helps private landowners achieve their goals they would be unable to afford without financial compensation. This mutually beneficial agreement ensures the habitat investments made by conservation entities are a wise investment and landowner goals are achieved.
  • A conservation and agricultural land easement does not restrict the sale or lease of the land. The land will always be worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
  • Conservation and agricultural land easements can allow landowners to expand their operation into new business opportunities such as hunting leases, bed and breakfasts, or ecotourism.
  • Ranchers and farmers view this as a tool for estate and business planning that allows them to strengthen their business and maintain good land stewardship.
  • Landowners that donate all or a portion of their ALE can receive a federal tax deduction up to 100% of their AGI for the value of the donation and they have 15 carry forward years to use the deduction. This deduction was specifically approved by Congress in a bipartisan fashion to benefit agricultural landowners.

Public Benefits

  • Through an easement, cherished scenic views, wildlife habitat, water quality, and historic sites are protected from development, fragmentation, and degradation, which benefits us all.
  • By keeping lands in private ownership that conserve natural Nebraska, the taxpayer does not bear the cost of land management.
  • Conservation and agricultural land easements can also provide an effective buffer on the border of our public lands to prevent development across the fence line that could adversely affect the public's use and enjoyment of those lands.
  • Nebraska’s scenic and ecologically unique regions in Nebraska are home to many species such as elk, bighorn sheep, prairie chickens, and others that depend on wide-open spaces. If these lands are subdivided, fragmented, and converted, it makes it difficult for wildlife species, including those that are hunted and enjoyed by wildlife viewers to survive.
  • Easements can keep development out of floodplains and reduce urban sprawl that results in an increased demand for public services. They can protect water quality and provide a tool to enhance water quantity in the over-appropriated river basins.

Easements aren't for everyone

Though the benefits far outweigh the negatives, it's important to note that easements do have limitations:

  • Conservation and agricultural land easements dictate to future generations opportunities for the land, to the extent that a conservation or agricultural land easement could deny future generations an opportunity to subdivide and develop the land.
  • An easement may or may not take land out of production forever. In some cases, a landowner’s goals might include forever protection of a grassland that was once used as cropland, or conservation of a native grassland so that it can never be converted to cropland. Also, some use agricultural land easements that are specifically designed to conserve working farms and ranches, whereas others may be more focused on the conservation of rare wildlife or native plant communities.
  • Conservation and agricultural land easements are not for everyone. They are not appropriate for anyone who is not comfortable with the concept of forever conservation. They are also not appropriate where there is no development threat or a lack of conservation values to protect. Also, if a family has several generations of good land stewards behind them and a couple of generations ahead of them who are likely to follow the same path, a conservation easement is not needed.
  • Donated conservation easements have led to abuse of the tax code. In some parts of the country, especially the southeastern United States, "syndicated" conservation easements have led to abuse of the tax code by artificially inflating a property's development value and then erasing that value through a conservation easement, which rewards investors with an unjustified tax deduction. The Land Trust Alliance, a national association of land trusts, is aware of these abusive transactions and supports bipartisan legislation that would make such transactions illegal.
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