Boom A Boon for Habitat
By David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens
The use of easements to protect open space has a long
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought easements
in Minnesota and the Dakotas in the 1930s to preserve
bird habitat. The National Park Service bought easements
to preserve vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
But conservation easements came to prominence only after
1976, when Congress approved tax deductions for land and
easements given to environmental charities for conservation
purposes. Since then, easements have been widely heralded
for helping safeguard the environment, protecting wildlife
and making many regions more attractive places in which
to live and play.
They also have sparked a land-trust boom. The number
of private, nonprofit land trusts swelled from 887 in
1990 to an estimated 1,300 today. The largest, the Nature
Conservancy, has assets of more than $3 billion and ranks
as the world's richest environmental group. It is the
eighth-largest American nonprofit of any type.
Altogether, the trusts hold more than 13,000 easements.
The leafy view across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon
was protected with easements. So was a wildlife corridor
along the Potomac in West Virginia.
The Vermont Land Trust has protected more than 7 percent
of total acreage in that state, mostly through easements.
The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy is using
easements to protect 6,000 scenic acres along Lake Michigan.
"The vast majority of land trusts are doing an excellent
job in saving land," Rand Wentworth of the nonprofit
Land Trust Alliance said in a statement Friday. "But
the Land Trust Alliance is proposing new standards to
control the isolated reports of activities that do not
Although concerns remain about the legal foundation for
such easements, land trusts have scored many legal victories
-- none more dramatic than that won by the French and
Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust of Pennsylvania.
In November 1998, after a ruling by a Chester County
judge, sheriff's deputies looked on as a wrecking machine
crashed through the walls of a 4,800-square-foot Colonial-style
house. The judge had ruled that the $350,000 structure
near Philadelphia had been built in violation of an easement
granted to the trust three decades earlier.
Even that victory had its costs, though: It came after
a nine-year battle that the Land Trust Alliance said cost
the nonprofit easement holder almost $100,000 -- an amount
exceeding the total annual budget of most land trusts.
While hailing the demolition as a milestone for the conservation
easement, an article in the Land Trust Alliance's newsletter
at the time nonetheless described the rancorous feud with
the builders as "a cautionary tale for all land trusts."