Guest column: Most land trusts do a worthy job
Vail CO, Colorado
The column in the Vail Daily “Eagle County open space tax a rip-off” that ran on Dec. 14 unfairly tarnished conservation easements in Eagle County and statewide. The writer is correct that Colorado’s conservation easement program has been in the news recently but she fails to distinguish between the good work of Colorado’s mainstream conservation community and the actions of a few bad apples who may have attempted to use the program to enrich themselves.
Thankfully, key Colorado public officials have taken the time to make that distinction.
“Colorado is the singular national leader in land conservation,” U.S. Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar wrote in a joint letter to the IRS earlier this month. “This record has been bolstered in recent years through a commitment by local and state governments to utilize programs, such as Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), that provide mechanisms to purchase lands for the open space, parks and trails we all enjoy. Since GOCO was created, nearly $550 million has been invested in protecting lands of statewide significance, including the preservation of many farms and ranches. In fact, Colorado has now protected over half a million acres of farmland and ranchland through conservation easements under GOCO.”
Erin Toll, the director of the Colorado Division of Real Estate who is spearheading the state’s investigation of potentially suspect conservation easements, told the Rocky Mountain News earlier this month that “it is an excellent program.”
Toll added: “I live here because of the things they are trying to protect. When I drive from here to Steamboat Springs along U.S. 40, I’m starting to see rooftops where there used to be ranches. A lot of ranch owners have had their property for three or four generations, sometimes going back to homesteading days. They’re cash poor and land rich. Without this program, their only option would be to sell it to a developer.”
Colorado’s mainstream conservation community supports efforts to crack down on any abuses of the conservation easement program. We’ve been working with appropriate government officials to stop over-inflated valuations and any other abuse of existing state or federal law. We don’t want any bad apples to spoil this worthy program.
We know that these programs must be able to withstand scrutiny and must demonstrate that they’re effective and cost efficient. That’s why we’re actively participating in a state task force that has recommended tightening up the program further to eliminate the potential for abuse.
In addition to state efforts, the national Land Trust Alliance is implementing a voluntary accreditation program, similar to programs found in other industries, most notably health care. The Eagle Valley Land Trust has been honored by the Alliance as being one of the first 22 land trusts in the country to participate in this nationwide effort. Participating in the accreditation program reflects an organization’s commitment to excellence and the Alliance’s rigorous standards and practices.
It is unfair to paint conservation easements with a broad brush just because of a few negative examples. Hundreds of these strong conservation easements across the state have conserved farms and ranchland, scenic and historic areas, wildlife habitat, and unique natural areas that otherwise could have been lost forever to development.
Far from a waste of money, conservation easements allow for the preservation of more land for far less money than would be needed to purchase these areas outright. For example, in Eagle County, three ranches totaling nearly 4,000 acres have been protected with purchased easements. Eagle County has invested roughly $6 million of its designated open space funds in these properties in cooperation with other funding partners such as Great Outdoors Colorado and private donors. It invested the same amount ” $6 million ” to purchase outright the 72-acre Eagle River Preserve, a $12 million project.
By taking land conservation dollars further, easements have allowed land trusts in Colorado and around the nation to gain momentum in their efforts to permanently preserve one-of-a-kind resources in the face of relentless development pressures.
Cumulatively, these transactions will have a tremendously positive impact on the quality of life and natural resources that make Colorado such a special place to call home.
I urge the people of Eagle County to applaud the well-done conservation work in your area and to encourage more of the same. You still have opportunities to shape the landscape of your region that future generations will inherit.
Jill Ozarski is the executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, which is based in Denver.