Ginger Davis, Conservation Administrator
Landowners may grant conservation easements out of a personal desire or under a public policy to keep specific land in its current use, preventing its further development. In other words, a conservation easement is a legal agreement to stop an area of land from being developed in the future. Also known as a conservation restriction, or conservation agreement, a conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement that limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. However, it has become the policy in many states including Indiana to preserve lands indefinitely, not only for recreation, maintenance of wildlife, and scenic value, but also for maintenance of agriculture and of a way of life. One creative use of an easement is the preservation of natural resources and wildlife. If you have a piece of land that is loved “as-is” and you want to keep it that way for your kids, grandkids, and the animals who call it home, a conservation easement may be something to consider. An easement stays with the title to the property, which can allow the property to remain in private ownership and to be used for purposes consistent with the conservation values of the property. An easement can also be a recorded land donation to a 501 (C)(3) trust that sets out a number of future-use restrictions to protect and conserve natural resources, including native wildlife. The terms of the easement remain intact if the property is sold or bequeathed, thus requiring all future owners to abide by the terms of the agreement. Indiana law was modified to permit the establishment of conservation easements to last forever. However, some types of easements are only for specific timeframes.
There is significant benefit to considering an easement both financially and for conservation purposes. Donated land into an easement, can benefit the donor as they are then entitled to an income tax benefit for their charitable contribution, which can be a significant value. There are three other types of potential tax savings associated with donating a conservation easement: real property tax, federal gift and estate tax, and an estate tax exclusion. The Internal Revenue Code provides that gifts for a “conservation purpose” of “qualified real property interests” to a “qualified organization” are deductible for federal income, gift, and estate tax purposes. Another feature in the tax law allows for an additional exclusion of land value from an estate tax estate under limited circumstances.
Conservation easement options are available in many different methods depending on the land management and goals of the land you are considering placing into an easement. Land trusts and other 501 (C)(3) entities exist in Indiana for acquiring and holding land with your easement restrictions being honored, while other easements are for land that is privately held and sold or turned over to your children. The following programs are available from local, federal and state partners.
The Classified Forest and Wildlands Program through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) encourages timber production, watershed protection, and wildlife habitat management on private lands in Indiana. Program landowners receive a property tax reduction in return for following a professionally written management plan. In addition to the tax incentive, landowners receive free technical assistance from DNR foresters and wildlife biologists, priority for cost share to offset the cost of doing management, and the ability to "green" certify their forests. The minimum requirement for program enrollment is 10 acres of forest, wetland, shrubland, and/or grassland.
In 2019, State Conservationist Jerry Raynor announced that Indiana’s USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) made funding available to help landowners protect and restore key farmlands, grasslands and wetlands across Indiana. The funding is provided through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), created to protect critical water resources and wildlife habitat, and encourage private owners to maintain land for farming.
“Conservation easements help Hoosier farmers protect valuable agricultural lands from development while enhancing lands best suited for grazing and wetlands to their natural conditions,” said Raynor. “These easements are making a dramatic and positive impact for food supply, rural communities, and species habitat.”
ACEP streamlines the conservation easement options into two primary components: a working lands component where NRCS provides assistance to partners with farmland protection programs to purchase agricultural land easements, and a wetlands reserve component where NRCS works directly with landowners to restore and protect their agricultural wetlands. In Indiana, over 1,900 acres were enrolled in ACEP in 2018 alone. Once restored, these acres will join over 77,500 acres of protected easements within the state.
ACEP's Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) protects the long-term viability of the nation's food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses while supporting environmental quality, wildlife habitat, historic preservation and protection of open spaces. State and local governments, non-governmental organizations and Native American Tribes that have farmland or grassland protection programs are eligible to partner with NRCS to protect farmland through easements.
Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE) help landowners reduce damage from flooding, recharge groundwater, restore, enhance and protect habitat for wildlife, and provide outdoor recreational and educational opportunities. Eligible landowners can choose to enroll in a permanent or 30-year easement. Tribal landowners also have the option of enrolling in 30-year contracts.
The Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) helps landowners restore, enhance and protect forestland resources on private lands through easements and financial assistance. HRFP aids the recovery of endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, improves plant and animal biodiversity and enhances carbon sequestration.
ACEP applications may be submitted at any time to NRCS. To learn about ACEP and other technical and financial assistance available through Indiana NRCS conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or contact your District Conservationist Angela Garrison at (email@example.com) or by phone (765)482-6355 extension x8675.
For more information on conservation easements consider looking here:
As always, please reach out to our office to find out what opportunities and partner programs would best fit with your land. firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at (317)773-2181.