Challenges spring from many directions

Greetings as spring speeds toward summer here in the Sangres! May snows and rains left the fields an emerald green, helping a year that's been nothing if not unpredictable. No snow in March! And no new land protected to report.

This is a drought, in a sense, a somewhat difficult spell for land conservation in Colorado with very little being protected. I wish we had good news on the land protection front, but we don’t.

Conservation easement values are down in our region, if not statewide in rural areas. Landowners and appraisers have had difficulty working with the Colorado Division of Real Estate, which oversees the tax-credit program. This program provides transferrable tax credits, which for the past 15 years have been the primary financial incentive for our landowners. The Division of Real Estate’s severe treatment of appraisers has forced some out of the business. Those left practicing are cautious. Most landowners whom I talk with are determining that the tax credit’s financial incentives are insufficient.

The lack of recent market data on sales of water rights, subdivision and protected properties limits the valuation potential. No data means that to set the market value, we would have to witness more dry-ups and subdivisions of good land before we can compensate landowners who choose to keep their land whole. That doesn’t work.

When a government program isn’t working properly, we all lose out. In 2016, across Colorado, only $10 million in tax credits were claimed, out of a $45 million cap, just 22 percent of capacity. That is a lot of conservation not getting done during a time of major population growth in the state. It makes the program funding vulnerable, and increases pressure on the few funders of this work, such as Great Outdoors Colorado.

In the coming years, San Isabel will participate with the land trust community statewide to formulate comprehensive reform of this tax-credit system. We believe that Coloradans want to protect the heritage and beauty of open spaces, farms and ranches, and wild mountain forests. We need to find a better way for willing landowners to be compensated.

Taking the long view

Perpetuity is an interesting goal. Because San Isabel's 130 conservation easements run perpetually with the land, San Isabel needs to take the long view. Our Board of Directors understands this obligation and has actedto perpetuate our funding, as much as possible.

Like most land trusts, San Isabel holds a Stewardship Fund – a restricted fund typically dedicated to financing the monitoring and enforcement of each conservation easement. Financially, conservation easements are liabilities, not assets. Our Stewardship Fund blance of about $850,000 is meager when compared with the legal risks of holding conservation easements through time. Landowners provided most of these funds upon closing a conservation easement.

San Isabel recently adopted a policy to minimize drawing down the Stewardship Fund by excluding normal, annual monitoriing expenses. Visiting our landowners is simply part of what we do, a core responsibility of land protection, and it is reasonable to include those costs in an operating budget. By limiting Stewardship Fund drawdown, San Isabel aims to grow the fund to achieve financial sustainability for this portion of our work.

Naturally, that forces us to raise operating funds from elsewhere, to pay our staff and keep the lights on. That's one place where you can help! Memberships start at $35, but there's no upper limit.

All of you – friends and neighbors in the land trust community, our network of landowners, partners and members – create a different type of asset, social capital. We can't do anything without that. Thank you for contributing!



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