Daruna: Critics of land conservation easements have twisted the concept
Writer Daruna dives into the misinformation being spread on conservation efforts in Colorado, debunking 6 myths.
The misinformation being spread about the U.S. government’s recommendation to create locally-led, voluntary campaigns to conserve and restore 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 is so egregious that some Colorado landowners — the ones in the best position to use conservation for land and water protection — now believe conservation hurts them.
In fact, the initiative, known as America the Beautiful, or 30×30, is not a land grab. Nobody is taking away farmers’ and ranchers’ private-property rights. Conservation and conservation easements are voluntary. And, conservation easements, which are legal agreements to protect land in perpetuity, create more — not fewer — options for landowners.
The government’s recommendations are detailed in the 2021 report Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful, and climate change is a primary focus. The subject has become so politicized that it is fueling a false narrative that instills fear and mistrust in the very communities that stand to benefit.
True, America the Beautiful is not perfect. Neither the report nor the conservation goals it outlines are clearly defined or actionable, and there are questions about how the vision will be implemented.
That said, here are six myths and their truths:
Myth: America the Beautiful is a land grab.
Truth: Privatelands conservation is strictly voluntary. When a landowner donates a conservation easement, that landowner decides how the land is conserved, used and cared for. The landowner still owns the land and retains the right to sell, lease or transfer the property, while giving up rights to develop, and in some cases, subdivide. Land trusts or open-space agencies facilitate the transaction according to the landowner’s wishes and take steps to ensure that those wishes are upheld over time.
Myth: Permanent, land-protection agreements take away private-property rights.
Truth: Conservation is the ultimate freedom to exercise private-property rights. Landowners work with land trusts or open-space agencies to determine the criteria for protecting the conservation values that are important to them.
People like James Taylor, president of the Heartland Institute, directly deceive Americans with falsities around this. At his 2022 “Stop 30×30 Summit” presentation, he said: “The environmental left, the climate left, is coming after you. Especially if you’re a rancher. Agriculture in general, but especially if you’re a rancher. They hate your guts. They want to destroy you. (30×30) is their means by doing it.”
Taylor’s statements are outright falsehoods. Most land trusts work directly with local farmers and ranchers to protect their property, remove the threat of development and keep families on their land and in production. Some land trusts in Colorado were established by ranchers for the very purpose of protecting their property and rights.
Myth: America the Beautiful is a “liberal” agenda.
Truth: Most Coloradans support the goals. In a survey of Colorado voters, the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project found that 83% said they support a national goal of protecting 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. More than 2 of every 3 of those surveyed said there is enough evidence of climate change that action should be taken.
Additionally, 88% told our organization, Keep It Colorado, that “Yes, climate change is occurring.” Of those, 73% are Republicans, 90% are independents and 98% are Democrats. Further, 79% believe that conserving lands that are more sensitive to climate change is an important land trust responsibility.
Myth: The agricultural community is opposed.
Truth: Many in the agricultural community support the broad objectives of America the Beautiful and are engaged in the dialogue. For example, supporters listed in the report include Western Landowners Alliance, Family Farm Alliance, Society for Range Management, American Farmland Trust and Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.
The American Farmland Trust stated, “our nation’s farmers, ranchers and foresters (are) essential allies in the effort to reach the 30×30 goals for biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation. The lands that they manage are critical for wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, food security, clean water and rural prosperity … . To be successful, these policies must embrace USDA’s legacy of voluntary, incentive-based and locally-led conservation and be strategically targeted.”
Myth: Landowners are not interested in taking part in conservation.
Truth: Dedicated landowners have acted to permanently conserve their properties for decades. Private landowners have worked with land trusts and their partners to conserve more than 3.3 million acres. Because approximately 60% of Colorado lands are privately owned, landowners play a crucial role. As one southwest Colorado rancher put it, “They’re not making any more land, so we need to do what we can to protect it.”
Myth: Landowners do not benefit from conserving their land.
Truth: Landowners who donate a conservation easement can receive financial incentives. Incentives come in the form of state tax credits and federal tax deductions. Landowners can also sell their tax credits and use the cash to re-invest in the land with stewardship efforts, agricultural production, succession planning and other activities.
The Colorado conservation community and voters have a role to play, too. Let’s advocate for climate-oriented policies, vote with our values, fund conservation tools and capacity, form collaborations and support land trusts and open-space agencies. We must also speak out against false information that hurts rural landowners and communities who stand to gain from conservation.
Melissa Daruna, of Eagle, is executive director of Keep It Colorado.
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