Middle River Dispatches is a gumbo of posts about fly-fishing, conservation, politics and days afield.

Tax incentives for land conservation

For all the bad news coming out of our nation’s capital, sometimes our elected officials actually introduce legislation that makes good sense for conservation.

There are a couple of pieces of legislation that would, if they become law, be a great help to conservation not only here in the Valley but across the country.

The first bill is the Conservation Easement Incentive Act. It was introduced on April 1, in the U.S. House of Representatives, by Representatives Mike Thompson, D-Calif. and seventh district representative Eric I. Cantor, R-Va.

A similar bill, known as the Rural Heritage Conservation Extension Act, was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Max Baucus, D-Mont. and Charles Grassely, R-Iowa.

These bills would make permanent the enhanced tax deduction for landowners who donate the fair market value of their land under a qualified conservation easement.

The deduction allows farmers and ranchers to claim a charitable deduction for up to 100 percent of the donated value of the land they place under an easement. Other landowners can deduct up to 50 percent of the value, an increase from 30 percent under the previous law.

These enhanced tax incentives became law in 2006 and were extended in 2008. Unfortunately, this enhanced deduction expires at the end of the year.

“I have seen firsthand how conservation easements are being used by family farms in my district,” said Cantor. “Providing a permanent tax incentive for conservation easements is a great way to encourage conservation efforts while also reducing the tax burden on these hard working families.”

Easements are an important conservation tool. According to the Valley Conservation Council, on whose Board of Directors I sit, easements have helped protect more than 48,000 acres here in the valley.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement, usually between the landowner and a land conservation organization or a public entity. The landowner continues to own the property but gives some rights to the easement holder.

Landowners often put some or all of their land under a conservation easement because they want to protect the important natural, historic or scenic qualities or their land.

Besides the charitable deduction, there can be other important tax benefits to landowners who place a conservation easement on their property.

Because of the way land is taxed, state and local taxes may be reduced.

Conservation easements could also mean lower estate and inheritance taxes. Heirs might be able to retain land they otherwise would have been forced to sell in order to pay those taxes.

Now the tax code is a tricky thing, so I won’t offer any advice on whether a donated easement makes tax sense for you. You will need to talk to the tax professionals about your specific situation.

You can also contact the Valley Conservation Council for more information as well.

What I will tell you is conservation easements are a good thing.

They help keep farmers and ranchers on their land.

Easements are also an important tool for protecting water and air quality, scenic vistas, open space and important fish and wildlife habitat. Benefits we often take for granted because they originate on private land.

The enhanced tax incentives favor working farms and ranches. By doing so, it creates an incentive to keep working lands working – less likely to become strip malls and subdivisions.

Here in the Valley that is a good thing.

You can read more of my columns at News Virginian.com

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