What is a land trust?
Throughout the United States over 1,200 private, non-profit land trusts have been working with communities and landowners to retain the unique attributes of places they cherish. Since the first land trust was founded over a century ago, more than 6.2 million acres (an area twice the size of Connecticut) of valuable wildlife habitat, farmland, wetland, urban parks, trails, and other open space has been set up for each generation to cherish.
Today, land trusts, like the Southeast Alaska Land Trust, are working with private landowners and others to protect the places that make our communities and neighborhoods unique.
Local and regional land trusts are uniquely structured non-profit charitable organizations with a mission to conserve land for its ecological, historical, scenic, recreational, and agricultural values. They accomplish this through a direct involvement in land transactions and management. Often the land trust accepts the donation of a conservation easement, but they can also purchase or accept donations of land, or manage land owned by others. In addition, a land trust also can serve landowners by advising them on how to best steward land they cherish.
A land trust provides many services and can tailor a strategy that meets the conservation and financial needs of the landowner. For example, the land trust might own the property or hold certain land use rights (such as development, timber harvest, and so on) through the donation of a conservation easement. Under some circumstances, the landowner might benefit from the reduction of federal and local taxes. After full or partial land rights are conveyed to a land trust, the organization immediately assumes the stewardship responsibilities of protected lands.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust (or government agency) that permanently limits certain uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows you to continue to own and use your land, and to sell it or pass it on to heirs. Future owners also will be bound by the easement’s terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed.
When you donate a conservation easement to a land trust, you give up some of the rights associated with the land. For example, you might give up the right to build additional structures, while retaining the right for sustainable timber harvest.
Conservation easements offer great flexibility. An easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, for example, while one on an old Alaskan homestead might allow continued farming or gardening and building additional support buildings. An easement may apply to just a portion of the property, and need not require public access.
A landowner sometimes sells a conservation easement, but usually easements are donated. If the donation benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meets other federal tax code requirements, it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. The amount of the donation is the difference between the land’s value with the easement and its value without the easement. Placing an easement on your property may or may not result in property tax savings.
Perhaps most important, a conservation easement can be essential for passing land on to the next generation. By removing the land’s development potential, the easement lowers its market value, which in turn lowers estate tax. Whether the easement is donated during life or by will, it can make a critical difference in the heirs’ ability to keep the land intact.
Why does Southeast Alaska need a land trust?
Most people in Southeast Alaska value many of the unique and natural attributes of land here. Whether it is ancient spruce forests, creeks choked with salmon, nagoonberry jelly, or honkers in a frosted wetland, there is much to enjoy in this incredible archipelago. It is true that many of these values are found in Alaska’s large scattered tracts of public land, but the winds of political change can quickly damage the most prudent of management plans. We feel that it is critical to conserve private land, especially those close to our towns, because they are the most accessible and most vulnerable. Southeast Alaska Land Trust believes that private landowners can play an important role in conserving private lands for public benefit. Through the preservation of open space future generations will be able to tap into the same attributes that we enjoy in this wondrous Alaskan land.
Where does Southeast Alaska Land Trust work?
Southeast Alaska refers to the narrow panhandle that stretches along the coast situated between the Pacific Ocean and Canada. From the northern reaches of Yakutat to the southern border of British Columbia near Metlakatla, we work with willing landowners and communities.
Where does the Southeast Alaska Land Trust get its funding?
The Southeast Alaska Land Trust is supported by its members. Their annual membership contributions provide our general operating funds. We also apply for grants offered by various foundations and organizations. These grants primarily fund specific projects and go directly towards those projects.
Who runs Southeast Alaska Land Trust?
Southeast Alaska Land Trust is organized and run by a highly involved Alaskan Board of Directors who meet monthly. The Board essentially governs the organization and is ultimately responsible for major decisions. The staff conducts the day-to-day operations and functioning responsibilities.
Does the land trust benefit financially from a conservation easement?
No, and actually there is a cost incurred by the land trust in conducting periodic site monitoring visits and follow-up reporting back to the landowner as to the result of the visits. To cover this cost, the land trust creates a stewardship endowment fund designed for the sites future monitoring and enforcement protections. Usually it is the easement donor who makes the contribution towards the stewardship fund.
How do landowners benefit?
Landowners work with us to ensure that some vital natural values of their land remains in place for the benefit of people and wildlife. These people seek the peace of mind and land protection that the Trust can provide. However, many also benefit from tax deductions and the resolution of financial and estate planning issues. Because Southeast Alaska Land Trust is an IRS-qualified charitable organization, people who engage in contributions, whether a bargain sale or a form of land donation, become eligible for tax deductions based on the value of the donation. In this way Southeast Alaska Land Trust provides a very valuable financial service for landowners.
Does a conservation easement grant public access to land?
Public access is not required by Southeast Alaska Land Trust as a condition of accepting a conservation easement. Typically the land continues to be managed or otherwise used exclusively by the donor with no public access. In some cases, if specified by the donors, the lands could be open for public recreation, or could serve as laboratories and educational sites for public and private schools. There are an array of options depending on the wishes of the landowner and the characteristics of the land. The land trust visits each easement property annually as a part of its stewardship function.
Does an easement restrict a landowner’s ability to sell, develop, or bequeath land in the future?
Land protected by a conservation easement may be sold, bequeathed or otherwise transferred at any time. An easement may apply only to certain portions of a property, preserving open or wooded areas, for example, while permitting development of the remainder. In other cases an easement covering an entire parcel might allow some very limited development to occur. Transfer of ownership will not affect the integrity or enforce-ability of the easement. Restrictions defined in the recorded conservation easement run with the title to the property, providing landowners an effective means of perpetuating conservation stewardship.
How are easements enforced?
By receiving a conservation easement the land trust takes on the permanent responsibility and legal right to enforce the terms of the easement. When an easement is created a baseline inventory of its conservation values is prepared to assist in future monitoring. Visits are made annually to ensure that terms and conditions of the easement are being honored. If a violation is discovered, the landowner is notified in accordance with the procedures outlined in the easement. The easement also defines the process to be followed to resolve disputes regarding an alleged violation. If necessary, the land trust is entitled to take legal action to fulfill the conditions of the easement.
What are the financial benefits of a conservation easement?
Income taxes: Given that an easement classifies as a charitable gift under the current tax code, it might provide federal income tax benefits. To qualify as a tax-deductible gift, a conservation easement must be granted into perpetuity to a recognized charitable organization such as the Southeast Alaska Land Trust. To be deductible, an easement must provide for the protection of conservation resources that provide significant public benefit such as, preservation of open space, natural habitat, historic sites, scenic landscapes, and areas for public education or recreation. The value of the gift, determined by a formal appraisal, is the difference between the fair market value of the land with and without the easement.
Estate Taxes: Federal estate taxes on unrestricted land, sometimes as high as 55%, can make it impossible for heirs to retain, forcing them to sell some or all of the land just to pay the taxes. Because a conservation easement reduces the fair market value of the property by reducing its development potential, inheritance taxes are also reduced. A conservation easement becomes a valuable tool enabling heirs to accept property that they otherwise might have been forced to sell.
Property Taxes: Placing an easement on your property may also result in local property tax savings. City and borough tax stipulations can vary throughout the state and a qualified advisor should be consulted on the local practices.