Written by Rick Buchanan
Even though most people do not know the details of conservations easements, most agree with the general idea. Who could possibly be against a program that touts the philosophy of preserving our lands for wildlife habitat and farming? How could “preserving” our rural countryside possibly be detrimental to farming or to our society as a whole? Yet there are some that would say the concepts behind conservation easements need a much more in-depth study. Just as sugar is surely pleasant to the palate, misuse and overindulgence can lead to many health problems, such as obesity and diabetes. In just such a way, conservation easement candy is not the environmental panacea we have been led to believe it is.
Recently, in the American Spectator, Joseph Lawler stated “the single greatest policy failure of modern America is urban policy. Since the Great Society era of Lyndon Johnson, the country has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into poor urban neighborhoods.” Fifty years and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have produced increased rates of violence, drug addiction, family breakdown, incarceration and abortion rates in our cities. Are the hundreds of billions of dollars we are now spending in rural America destined for a similar failure?
Landowners and/or farmers who decide to put their land in a negative servitude program (known as a conservation easement) to receive tax breaks are not required to farm the land. In fact, if a “good” deal is struck, the land alone can become a cash producer, at least for a few years. And therein lies the rub.
We are looking at a policy that is assisting in the creation of a new dependent class; a land-rich class that will become dependent on the largesse of the government and the tax credits associated with eased land. The problem for these landowners is two-fold. 1) The tax credits are for a limited time but the easements are, for the most part, in perpetuity. 2) The landowner is then stuck with a property that is necessarily lower in value.
Instead of promoting farmers and farming, these policies have the exact opposite force on the family farm. Rich landowners who get tax breaks for eased land do not need the income from working the farm. In fact, their tax breaks are figured on their Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), with no restrictions on where their earnings come from. This makes it easier for them to just allow the land to sit, unfarmed. In fact, this is exactly what many do. Fox hunting, a popular sport in rural counties, requires many acres of uncultivated land to really enjoy the thrill of open-country chases, which can, and in some cases is, funded by these benefaction programs.
This gift-mentality taxation policy for the land-rich also creates additional burdens on the other citizens who make up the vast majority of taxpayers. Since the land is valued for less, the taxes collected are less. Add to this the funding of pay-outs for the additional tax breaks offered and the burden for all other taxpayers becomes greater. On top of that, if the land does not produce marketable products yet another source of tax revenue is lost and even more burden is heaped on the (anyone-who-does-not-have-a-conservation-easement) citizen.
Going against the conservation easement tide is not a popular position to take, but that is where Joel Salatin finds himself. The Shenandoah farmer, called "the high priest of the pasture" by the New York Times, warns all who venture into the “negative servitude” arena to enter with caution. Writing in Flavor Magazine, which touts itself as “the only independent publication dedicated to local food, Virginia wine, and sustainable agriculture in the Capital foodshed”, Salatin writes about his inability to build a chicken coop, or even a doghouse, on the eased property he leased to enlarge his farmed land.
Using his usual flare for colorful descriptions, Joel laments “To have a nonfarmer group from 200 miles away telling the landowner what is appropriate according to the easement is like putting an Amish man in charge of nuclear reactor regulations….What good is protecting farmland if we don’t protect the farmers and their economic viability on the land?”
Salatin goes on to say “Economic viability today demands value-adding, which means onfarm infrastructure like you would expect to see in Williamsburg. Too often those policing these easements want to see cows, pretty pastures, and bucolic gambrel barns without realizing that such a landscape never existed sustainably. Ultimately, these easements reduce farm viability and gradually turn Virginia’s pastoral landscape into a wilderness area. That’s probably not the green space folks have in mind. Giving over farm decisions to people who neither farm nor adapt their approaches jeopardizes farmers’ livelihoods. Ultimately, preserving farmers is the only sustainable way to preserve farms.”
As you might imagine, the defenders of conservation easements sounded off angrily in their letters to the editor of Flavor Magazine, saying they were “bewildered” and calling Salatin’s remarks a “disservice” and having “inaccurate and maligned information”.
However, fellow farmer Joshua Grizzle of Lexington, VA wrote in his letter (also found in preceding link) to explain how he had experiences similar to Salatin. Since I found his personal experiences were pertinent to the discussion here, I will let his words frame the discoveries of many who are involved in these conservation programs. “I also speak from experience here as my family has considered such a (conservation easement) program on our land. I believe, however, that this program is a step in exactly the wrong direction. If we are afraid that our land is going to become developed into a subdivision or Walmart, the solution is exactly not to try to put up blind barriers to development and further decrease land value. Instead we must figure out a way for landowners and the broader community to place a higher value on land used for things other than strip malls. We do that by creating value-added businesses on those lands that enhance, rather than destroy, the natural beauty.”
It would appear Salatin and Grizzle are backed up by learned professionals that have long studied land and farming issues. Dana J. Gattuso, Senior Fellow at The National Center for Public Policy Research says “These (conservation easements) are largely anti-farm production programs, restricting land use on private farmland to support wetlands, grasslands, and non-threatened species while doing precious little to grow the nation's crop supply and stabilize rising food prices.”
Certainly it is not the aim of the “conservation benefaction” programs to create the classification of unintended consequences known as the perverse effect, but there is ample evidence that, like the urban policy discussed earlier, that is the path the new rural policy is taking. Many across the country are now taking a good, hard look at what unintended consequences are being wrought with the full implementation of conservation easements. From The Nerve, a publication in South Carolina, reporter Donna Linsin writes “As more and more land is grabbed by federal, state, county and municipal governments, and land banks, and is placed in conservation easements, the rest of us will have to put up with living in crowded conditions, noisy and intruding neighbors, the unworkable schedules of public transportation, and lack of clean air and water. Is this how we want to live, work and play? These land-grabbing tactics can only drive up the cost of (non-easement) land that only a few people will be able to afford to buy.”
If you have read through these articles thoughtfully, YOU should have the ability to begin the process of establishing the winners and losers of conservation policies. With a better understanding of how our governmental policies affect us, and armed with that knowledge, we can all take steps to insure we are working toward long-ranging answers, not sugar-coated missteps sweetened by our tax dollars.
If you have made up your mind, call your local or state representative and share your knowledge. Find out what their understanding is and if it is fact-based or just wishes and hopes. Become involved in the process. Get your thoughts out. Only then can we all be winners in the future. It is the future for your kids and their kids, into perpetuity, that we are planning for today.
See previous articles on Conservation Easements from Rick Buchanan