A conservation easement is the most popular and permanent way to protect your land’s special features while retaining private ownership and use.
How conservation easements work
A conservation easement is a permanent agreement between a landowner and a qualified conservation group. The easement document specifies:
- The purpose of permanent protection, including the natural, cultural, historic and scenic attributes of the land
- What uses or rights the landowner retains
- What land uses the landowner does not want to exercise — and which no future owner will be able to exercise
In other words, when you grant a conservation easement, you retain many land ownership rights while voluntarily giving up others — such as development or mining — that could damage the site’s conservation values. The easement document, which is binding to the current owner and all future owners, is filed with the county recorder. The easement holder accepts the responsibility of monitoring the land use into the future.
Because landscapes, landowner goals and potential threats vary widely, a conservation easement is a flexible protection tool.
Though conservation easements may start from the same template, each is tailored to the land and the landowner. For example, some Iowa easement donors place an easement on their entire property while others protect only the most vulnerable areas. Some limit timber harvesting to a sustainable plan while others completely prohibit it. Some restrict development to protect their agricultural tradition. Others restrict agriculture to protect their prairie restoration efforts.
Easements allow landowners to maintain most ownership rights. Landowners still hold the property in fee-title and can sell it or bequeath it to heirs. If compatible with the purpose of the easement, they may live on the site, raise crops, harvest timber and otherwise derive income from the property. Their rights to restrict public access are identical to those of any other private landowner. Easement donors also retain typical landowner responsibilities such as controlling noxious weeds and paying property taxes.
A conservation easement generally reduces the land’s fair market value, which can reduce the donor’s taxes. If the easement is donated, the difference in appraised value before and after placing the easement may be recognized as a charitable gift and may qualify the donor for substantial income tax benefits. It may also reduce estate and inheritance taxes.
If you’re trying to complete your easement within a specific tax year or other personal deadline, plan ahead. From start to finish, the process can take anywhere from four to 15 months.
The conservation easement process involves several steps, including drafting and agreeing on easement language, updating the property abstract to assure clear title, getting a qualified appraisal (if you seek tax benefits), creating a baseline inventory that the easement holder (your conservation partner) can use in future monitoring visits, and filing final documents with your county recorder. While most of these tasks aren’t your responsibility, you need to allow time for your partner to complete them.
Granting a conservation easement is a major decision that should not be taken lightly. Depending on circumstances, easements can significantly reduce the land’s fair market value while providing significant tax benefits. Once signed, an easement’s restrictions are recorded and become permanently binding on the current owner and all future owners.
Before granting a conservation easement, discuss your options with your financial and legal advisors, family, heirs and potential easement holder.
Tailoring your easement
Most conservation easements share similar features — with the finer details adapted to each landscape and landowner.
For example, easements held by INHF generally prohibit subdivision, development, mining and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). They generally permit continued residence by current and future owners, agriculture on existing farm fields, timber harvests within a sustainable plan and other activities that don’t violate the stated restrictions or otherwise damage the property’s natural resources. However, most easements also have individual features that reflect the specific landscape or the landowner’s wishes.
Conservation Easement FAQ
Must it be a donation?
In Iowa nearly all conservation easements are donated. Some states fund programs to purchase conservation easements, but Iowa does not. Federal programs sometimes provide partial payment, but they may require multiple years to complete and may require significant land value contributions from the landowner. For the most part, Iowa easement donors receive their reward from income tax benefits and intangibles like peace of mind about their land’s future.
Is WRE or CRP a conservation easement?
Federal farm programs sometimes offer opportunities to restrict use on your land in return for a payment. This website explains permanent, voluntary agreements that landowners make with conservation nonprofits or local agencies. In contrast, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is generally a 10-15-year agreement, not permanent. Federal Wetland Reserve Easement program (WRE) easements have some similarity, as they all permanently restrict cropping and development, but they are not tailored to the land and landowner as these conservation easements are.
How do I choose an easement holder?
Your first step is to choose a conservation agency or nonprofit you trust to hold and monitor your conservation easement in perpetuity. It’s important to choose an easement holder that shares your goals and has the professionalism and capacity to fulfill the contractual obligations of an easement.
The easement holder’s main responsibility is to ensure that no present or future owners exercise or permit the uses prohibited by the easement agreement. Different organizations handle this responsibility differently, so look for easement holders who will permanently commit the time and resources to monitor and enforce your easement’s restrictions.
Easements may be held by public or private entities. Eligible public agencies are listed in Iowa Code Section 457A.1. They include the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and county conservation boards. Private, nonprofit organizations (such as INHF, The Nature Conservancy and many others) are also qualified easement holders.
What you can expect from INHF
If you decide you’d like INHF to be your easement holder, this is what you can expect:
- INHF staff will discuss with you your wishes and explore your land, then draft an easement document. We encourage you to seek legal counsel during the drafting and completion of your easement.
- During the easement-drafting process, INHF staff completes a baseline inventory of the property, including photos and descriptions of key resources. INHF records your signed easement document and baseline with your county recorder.
- Using the baseline data, INHF staff visits our easement sites annually to ensure that the use of the land complies with goals and restrictions in the easement agreement. All visits are scheduled in advance and owners are encouraged to join the INHF staff member before, during or after the monitoring process. Staff is thankful for the chance to learn more about your land’s special features. We ask that you let us know if you are considering a sale or transfer of your land.
- When the land is sold or transferred, INHF makes a point to establish early and friendly communications with the new owner (who will learn about the easement and its restrictions during the purchase process). INHF and the new owner then conduct annual monitoring visits as before.
- If a violation occurs, INHF works with the owner to discontinue and/or fix the problem. If a major violation occurs that can’t be resolved through dialogue — such as a new owner trying to build condos when the easement forbids development — INHF would use legal means to protect the easement’s integrity.
Easement Monitoring Funds
Responsible easement holders take seriously their perpetual responsibility to monitor the site for easement compliance and, if necessary, enforce the easement through legal means—even decades after the gift was made. To ensure the financial capacity to do this, INHF and many other easement holders have established easement monitoring funds to cover monitoring costs and potential legal costs if the easement needs to be defended in court. It’s not uncommon for landowners who establish easements to be asked to consider a tax-deductible contribution to such a fund. It’s your opportunity to help your chosen partner maintain financial strength to be your eyes into the future.