Skip to main content Skip to navigation

FOWS 2021 Q&A – Panel — Working with a land trust

Posted by brendan.whyte | March 5, 2021

Panel — Working with a land trust

(Answers by Chris Deforest, Bob & Jane Takai)

Chris Deforest, Inland NW Land Conservancy, Conservation Director, 35 West Main Avenue, Ste 210.
Spokane, WA 99201. Office 509-328-2939; Cell 509-863-7848. cdeforest@inlandnwland.org

Bob and Jane Takai, Forest Landowners, bobjanetk@gmail.com
_________________________________________________________________________________

Q: What’s a land trust?

A: An organization that protects land and waters for public benefit. Most are non-profits; some agencies operate like land trusts. Land trusts often use a mix of public and private partnerships. Land Trusts are special in that we are NOT a political or adversarial group. We’re the low blood pressure people. We work only with willing private landowners, and we work in tandem with all kinds of conservation partners. 32-41 in Washington State. (Screen share WALT and LTA).

Basic tools: Land trusts sometimes buy land to hold as preserves, or hold land as an intermediary, or enter conservation agreements on land (“conservation easements.”) This session’s focus is about conservation easements between a land owner and a land trust.

Q: How:
A: Land Trusts speak of a conservation toolbox. There are many possible tools to identify, protect and safeguard important lands. Every land trust has its own priorities and its own supporters.

The main tools that land trusts use to protect lands are:

  1. Buying land outright as a preserve.
  2. Accepting gifts of land.Facilitating deals with our conservation partners like wildlife agencies, parks departments, and utilities like Avista.
  3. Conservation easements. We have 62, covering 12,000 acres. Statewide 866k acres of land protected. Nationally 56MA, 1300 land trusts, 5 million supporters, 200k volunteers, 15k board members and 10k staff.

Q: What are Conservation easements:

A: Property rights are like a box of pencils. You can set some of the rights aside and keep the rest. Say you have 100 acres of land, zoned one house per ten acres. CE is a Permanent protective covenant. Permanent quarantine for some of the property rights, and permanent sideboards for the exercise of other reserved rights. Examples: forestry and development envelopes. State statutes and federal law govern conservation easements.

Stewardship/Monitoring: Land trusts visit all of their conservation easements in person at least once a year. More often if necessary. We make sure that the conservation values are intact and that the terms of the conservation easement are being upheld. We have a policy for dealing with infractions, and have only had to threaten legal action once. We also carry $500k of easement defense insurance.

Stewardship Fund: Whenever we take on a conservation easement, we sock away money in the Stewardship Fund to cover the future costs of monitoring and insuring the added burden. The amounts have ranged from $3-$20k per easement.

Q: Why would I care? My life is full and my trees are growing.

A: Well—-it protects the land for good. It can be part of your estate planning. (Ties to the Land). If you donate the conservation easement, you’re entitled to a charitable income tax deduction and it may cut your estate taxes. It might help with property taxes—talk to your county assessor. If you can sell the conservation easement, you’ll be getting paid for the uses that you never want to see happen on your land, like subdivision and development and conversion of the land.

Q: How do I find my land trust? How do I find out more about conservation easements?

A: WALT— https://walandtrusts.org/about-us/our-land-trusts/
LTA—https://www.landtrustalliance.org/find-land-trust

Bob and Jane Takai (featured landowners) placed a CE on their 250-acre Newman Lake forest in 2001. It has their house on it, and it allows a second house someday. Forest mgt follows a forest mgt plan. The Takai’s get the money when they log, they pay the taxes, they own the land. But they have quarantined the development rights forever. And they enlisted Inland Northwest Land Conservancy to make it stick, forever.

Q: Can you plant a field with trees. Will they survive?

A: Andy Perleberg Planting a field is the most challenging reforestation (or “afforestation”) you will ever conduct. Ask for advice if you are concerned about the loss of seedlings.

Q: Is the land discussed in Eastern or Western WA

A: Featured landowners are from Newman Lake, east of Spokane (eastern WA).

Q: What percentage of trees do you leave when you log?

A: Tree species, # per acre, size, are all part of your regeneration plan based on your management goals. The DNR Forest Stewardship Program foresters can meet with you to answer these types of questions.

Q: What happens when you die?

A: The conservation easement continues. It runs with the land. It is permanent protection for the land, recorded at the courthouse like any other easement for a road or powerline.

Q: Can the easement be removed?

A: Most land trusts only do permanent easements, not temporary. Some government easements are time-limited. Land trusts can’t undo easements.

Q: Is it (a conservation easement) really forever?

A:Yes. Conservation easements are permanent. They are recorded in the county courthouse. Government can sometimes exercise eminent domain over land with a conservation easement but the bar is high to prove that it’s essential.

Q: Can they be changed in the future?

A: Most land trusts will agree to change the easement if it enhances the conservation values, like adding acreage or shrinking the development area. We can’t “loosen the belt” just because a landowner wants to relax the protections on the land.

Q: What happens if the land trust ceases to exist?

A: A court transfers the easement to another qualified easement holder, such as another land trust or government entity.

Q: Are there fees/costs to easement?

A: Yes. When land trusts purchase easements, they may have the funding to cover the costs. For donated easements, the landowner generally has to pay for title insurance. Depending on the land trust, the landowner may be asked to cover other costs, such as paying for staff time, documentation, surveys, and so on. The landowner may be asked to contribute to a Stewardship Fund that helps endow the future costs of upholding the conservation easement’s protections. If the landowner donates the conservation easement AND wants to take a tax deduction, s/he will need to hire a qualified appraiser to determine the value of the easement. Those appraisals are expensive.

Q: Can I tailor the terms of the easement agreement

A: Yes, up to a point. Each CE is tailored to the land, and to what the landowner wants and what the land trust agrees to. Each land trust is different.

Q: Are there financial benefits?

A:There can be. If you donate the CE, you’re making a donation to a charity (the land trust). You can take a federal charitable tax deduction for the value of the CE. If you can’t use the whole amount in one year, you can carry over unused amounts for up to 15 years. Ask your tax advisor. A conservation easement may also be valuable as part of your estate planning, and for federal estate taxes although the threshold is currently quite high.

Q: What if future owner violates part of agreement?

A: The land trust will enforce the terms of the conservation easement. Each land trust has its own enforcement policy. Many land trusts carry conservation easement insurance through TerraFirma.

Q: What was special about the (Takai Family’s) property that made the Land Trust interested in preserving it?

A: The Takai property has diverse, healthy forests and their land protects an important stream leading into Newman Lake, which recharges our aquifer. Each land trust has its own mission. Check out their website, and ours.

Q: What kind of land is your LC interested in?

A: Usually they are looking for specific habitats to preserve.

Q: Do land trusts ever sell parcels back?

A: We don’t actually own any of our 62 conservation easement properties, so we can’t sell them. If you are asking about land that is sold or given outright to a land trust, it depends on the terms of the transaction. If we are buying or accepting it as a preserve, we hold it. If it is a gift of real estate that we intend to turn around and sell as ordinary real estate, we put that in writing BEFORE we accept the gift.

Q: Do easements deal with hunting or no hunting?

A: Depends on the land trust. Our CEs are usually silent on the issue. It’s a right that most landowners want to keep. In a couple of instances landowners have insisted that the CE prohibit hunting. We have accepted the language but told the landowner up front that as a practical matter, our enforcement will be limited to helping post signs.

Q: What is the “Tree Farm System” that was mentioned?

A: American Tree Farm System is a national forestland certification program that is internationally recognized for managing by certified standards of sustainability. https://www.treefarmsystem.org/ . In Washington state, there is no fee for certification. Family forest owners with 10 or more contiguous forest acres are eligible to be a certified forest, managed by the WA Tree Farm Program.

Q: Are there rewards possible within any Land Trust format that would offer later benefits to the land grantor?

A: Not sure what is being asked here. All of our conservation easements allow the landowner to improve the environment such as by planting trees, managing their forests, restoring stream corridors and wetlands and so on.

Q: How to we access the Washington Forest Practices Act?

A: WA Forest Practices Act is probably best accessed here at the WA Dept. of Natural Resources wesbsite, where the Forest Practices Rules, Board Manual, and an Illustrated Guide can often be most useful.

Q: Could someone purchase the land and clearcut it to create pastures or do they have to keep the land in forests?

A: The conservation easement will spell out the uses of the land. Our easements are mostly on working forests like the Takais, and the forested lands stay forested. (Andy Perleberg’s note: sometimes clear cuts are a preferred regeneration system for growing healthy tree species intolerant of shade like coastal Douglas-fir. Also, clearcutting may be a form of sanitation of a stand that has been impacted by a pathogen, or some abiotic damage agent such as a wildfire or a wind storm.)

Q: Has anyone researched the sale of carbon credits from land trust forests?

A: Many have. I don’t have time right now to pursue, or to make recommendations.

Q: Crystal Lake and carbon credits…. what was not mature enough… that land, or something about the process?

A: I can’t answer this. (Andy Perleberg’s note: I believe she was referring to the trees, as carbon credits are often accounted for by the additionality of stored, growing carbon)

Q: Will the power point be available?

A: I spoke from talking points and am happy to email it. cdeforest@inlandnwland.org You can ask the Takais.