Tom and Rose Rupert were “in a bit of a quandary,” they recall. After decades spent working an 84-acre ranch in the mountains 20 miles north of Aspen, Colo., Tom was ready to take it a little easier, and they were dreaming of starting a new chapter on the coast of Mexico. They were eager to leave behind the snow masses in Old Snowmass and return to the place they chanced to meet in 2010, when each was seeking solace after the recent loss of a spouse.
Taking some value out of their land was their best hope for realizing the dream. They were adamant that the wildlands, wetlands and fields of the ranch should remain intact, but there were few suitors for the full acreage. “It’s not the rich man’s dream,” says Rose, adding that the dwelling-related structures are kind of funky. “But if we’d wanted to break it up for development, we wouldn’t have had a problem selling it,” she adds. Then there was the question of Tom’s three children, one of whom was raising his family on the land. “He’s lived on that property since he was born,” Tom says.
Pitkin County’s office of Open Space & Trails had already been looking at putting some of the surrounding property in conservation. The couple began talking with staff of the agency about the possibility of preserving the Rupert ranch by putting some or all of it under a conservation easement. Such an easement allows landowners to retain ownership while surrendering the development rights on the conserved property in perpetuity.
In exchange for the value of those development rights, the Ruperts would receive tax credits from the state of Colorado that they could use themselves or sell to others. “It seemed like a win-win,” Rose says. After a somewhat lengthy and complex transaction, the couple agreed to conserve 77 acres in perpetuity, keeping a “development envelope” of seven acres. Ultimately, they netted enough to realize their retirement aspirations while keeping the ranch intact and in the family.
A Tool for Land Conservation
“A conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement a landowner makes to limit the type and amount of development that can occur,” says Dan Lobbes, vice president for land and watershed programs at The Conservation Foundation. The foundation has used easements, along with other tools, to preserve roughly 36,000 acres in eight counties surrounding the Chicago metro area. “The purpose is to safeguard natural resources while keeping the land in private ownership,” Lobbes says. “Government agencies can’t afford to buy every property that has natural value, and taxpayers wouldn’t want [them to do] that.
“The easements are tailored to the vision of the owner and characteristics of land,” Lobbes says. “The property can be sold or inherited. Every other right is in place.” In nearly all cases, the resulting agreements are monitored and enforced by a public agency—as in the case of the Ruperts’ ranch—or by a nonprofit entity, which ensures that the conditions specified in the resulting deed are upheld.
Local land trusts like The Conservation Foundation are easily the most common such stewards, says Rex Linville, eastern division director of field programs for the Land Trust Alliance, a nationwide 1,000-member local nonprofit organization that safeguards lands under conservation easements.
While the concept of the conservation easement has existed in various forms for a century or more, its use accelerated dramatically beginning in the 1980s, when federal income tax incentives were formalized, Linville says. Federal taxpayers can take a charitable deduction equal to the value of the surrendered development rights. Many states, such as Colorado, offer additional inducements (more on that later).
As of 2020, about 61 million acres of privately held land were under conservation via restrictive easements—more than all national parks combined, according to the LTA. Through the 2010s, land was conserved at a rate of roughly 1 million acres a year. The LTA is pursuing an ambitious goal of adding another 60 million by 2030.
“The most common properties under easements are working forest or agricultural lands,” Linville says. “They stay as part of the economic productivity of a community, because the restriction makes sure the land continues to be available for productive use and doesn’t get developed.” Conservation easements also play a growing role in efforts to preserve or improve water quality, establish wildlife and pollinator corridors and, more recently, sequester carbon in the face of climate change.
“Along the Mississippi River, which has huge problems with agricultural runoff problems, farmers are putting riparian land in easements to compensate them for declining to farm on that area,” says Dan Wagner, senior vice president of government relations for Inland Real Estate Group in Oak Brook, Ill., and a board member of The Conservation Foundation and the REALTORS® Land Institute. Often these open space set-asides come as mitigation for a development project under regulatory requirements, though those arrangements aren’t eligible for tax benefits.