Conservation and economic health go hand in hand

San Isabel Land Protection Land Trust would like to clear up any confusion about land preservation and our most commonly used tool, conservation easements. 

Our goal is simple: Protect land, water and wildlife while there is still time. 

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Photo by Bill Gillette

San Isabel takes the long view. Colorado’s population is projected to reach 8.5 million by 2050. Where will we get the additional water resources to support that population? We want to ensure that our region forever remains a beautiful and wild landscape with a strong agricultural foundation and vibrant, healthy communities.

To do that, we work with willing private landowners to protect agricultural and forest lands, water resources, wildlife habitat and scenic open spaces through conservation easements. These are voluntary agreements that permanently protect land for certain public benefits, such as scenic or agricultural open space and natural habitat. 

Each conservation easement is individually negotiated and specific to the property and the landowner’s needs. In most easements, landowners give up potential subdivision rights on their property. As an incentive to give up that potential development, the landowner can receive federal and state tax benefits for donating a conservation easement. The Colorado State tax credit for conservation easements can be resold for cash to other Colorado taxpayers, allowing landowners of all income levels to participate. 

To get the tax credit, the easement is assigned a dollar value based on an appraisal reviewed by the state. The easement is donated to a qualified land trust such as San Isabel, which oversees the preservation of the land for the public’s benefit. 

Conservation easements have not stalled in recent years due to opposition to easements, but due to systemic problems at the state Real Estate Division. A 2016 audit of the division’s handling of conservation applications noted, for example, that the Real Estate Division had difficulty funding staff positions due to flaws in its fee structure. That created a backlog of applications. Its handling of appraisal reviews also was an issue, with some appraisers forced out of the already small field, slowing conservation easements across the state. Those appraisers left were cautious. The 2016 audit also recommended the Real Estate Division communicate better with appraisers on review standards. 

The Colorado state legislature, continuing the state’s commitment to this vital program, has recently moved the program from the Division of Real Estate to a newly created Division of Conservation. We are optimistic that we will see an improved process that will result in more certainty for landowners and an increase in new conservation easements. San Isabel has witnessed ongoing, strong interest from willing landowners who want to protect the region’s critical landscapes. 

In Custer County, San Isabel holds 80 easements protecting 27, 746 acres. Why should you care? The scenic vistas and wildlife you enjoy from your home, the ranching heritage we all revel in and the ability to relieve development pressures that risk our water resources and way of life are all results of this work. 

San Isabel’s conservation easements in the county’s Grape Creek District align with the county’s master plan and zoning ordinances, which aim for a low population density and protecting agriculture resources and open space. Subdivision on the valley floor is not prohibited but is limited to 80-acre parcels through zoning that dates back to the 1970s.

It should be noted that today, Custer County has more than 3,100 vacant lots, according to the county assessor’s office. Lack of demand may be a bigger problem than any perceived restrictions on growth. San Isabel is not anti-growth. But we do encourage development that is in concert with our natural resources and heritage and that does not undermine the natural beauty that brought many of us here. 

Protecting the landscape, scenic beauty, water and wildlife that make Colorado the special place it is requires commitment, resources and public support. That support is longstanding in Colorado. In 1992, voters approved a constitutional amendment that committed lottery proceeds to this work and created Great Outdoors Colorado, which receives up to half of all lottery proceeds. Every county, including Custer County, has benefited. This year, state lawmakers passed a law ensuring Colorado lottery proceeds will continue to be source of income for conservation and outdoor recreation through at least 2049. 

Since 1995, Colorado has invested $280 million through Great Outdoors Colorado grants and $772 million through tax credits, according to a 2017 Colorado State University study. As result, residents and visitors have receive $5.5 billion to $13.7 billion in economic benefits through the myriad values of protected lands to agriculture, wildlife, tourism and a high quality of life. In short, conservation and economic health go hand in hand. 

We welcome your questions about our work and about conservation easements. 

 

Larry Vickerman, President, Board of Directors

Linda Poole, Executive Director

Ben Lenth, former San Isabel Executive Director, now Community Conservation Program Manager at Colorado Open Lands

Janet Smith, Development Director

Kate Spinelli, Stewardship Director

 

 

 

 

Janet Smith

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  • “Placing a conservation easement on our family ranch assures us of what WON'T happen to the land and water when we're gone.”

    – Bill Donley, fourth-generation rancher