New Conservation Easement Act Aims to Save Lands from Development

For sportsmen, the term "private lands" typically means acres of fish and wildlife habitat closed to public use. That term has taken on new meaning in recent months as members of Congress have signed on to support the call by special interests to sell off public property to states and private industries.

But there is another story to private lands that benefits fish, wildlife, and sportsmen. And there is actually a bi-partisan initiative underway in Congress that will strengthen it.

I'm talking here about the private land trust conservation movement – the act of private landowners placing permanent conservation easements on acres of their property. Rather than grow condos or row crops or hand these acres off to heirs, they are giving perpetual protection to forests, streams, meadows, and swamps that provide homes for fish and wildlife.

According to the Land Trust Alliance, which represents roughly 1200 of the estimated 1700 private land trusts, about 13 million acres of private lands have been preserved this way over the last 10 years – a pace that continues at about 1 million acres a year.

Access to these properties varies depending on the articles of the particular trust. Only non-consumptive uses are permitted on some. Others permit fishing or hunting; some allow both. But even those closed to hunting and fishing provide opportunity for the growth of fish and wildlife populations, which eventually help all hunters and anglers. Very few pheasants, deer, ducks, and trout are grown in shopping malls.

The nation has long encouraged this movement by offering certain tax incentives, just as it does for most charitable giving. Unfortunately, the legislation has always had expiration dates, and giving the recent partisan combat in Congress, renewals (which always garner wide bi-partisan support) have sometimes suffered collateral damage from other fights. That happened last year.

That brings us to the Conservation Easement Incentive Act of 2015 (H.R. 641), which would make the tax incentives permanent. It is contained in the larger America Gives More Act of 2015, which last week rolled through the House on a 279-137 vote. (Yes, the warring parties managed to agree on something.)

The odds look equally favorable in the Senate, but sportsmen shouldn't take anything for granted. Contact your representatives in Washington and tell them of your support for the bill. After all, we're just making it possible for people to so something good for fish, wildlife and sportsmen.

And there's something else you can do. Membership in these local land trusts is open to the public – you don't have to donate lands to join.

Check with the Land Trust Alliance for more information.