by Cailey McDermott
Originally appeared in Colorado Central Magazine | October 2021
In a major win for conservation in Colorado, Gov. Polis signed the Conservation Easement Tax Credit Modifications Bill (HB21-1233) into law June 30, 2021. The law increases the tax credit incentive to up to 90 percent of the donated value of a landowner's conservation easement.
Adam Beh, Central Colorado Conservancy executive director, said that last year the tax credit incentive was “up to 50 percent of the value so this is a huge improvement.”
Keep It Colorado, a legislative advocacy group for land trusts, lobbied at the capitol in Denver to achieve this conservation victory.
Linda Lidov, director of membership and communications for Keep It Colorado, said, “With this
Legislation, landowners are incentivized more than ever to voluntarily conserve land through a conservation easement.”
Beh explained conservation easements as a voluntary agreement between a land trust and a landowner.
“Essentially, we (CCC) purchase the development rights to a property through negotiations with landowners, and then we protect it in perpetuity,” Beh said. “That’s important, it’s a forever compact.”
While the landowner forfeits the right to develop or build on their property, in exchange they receive financial compensation and environmental protection for all future generations. Beh said easements do not restrict working the land.
The value of the land is based on a specific easement appraisal. Another major step Colorado took in recent years is regulating easement appraisers. There are now only a few in the state, and they must follow strict guidelines.
“People were making bogus appraisals.,” Beh explained. The new regulations are “good for Colorado.”
Beh clarified that the property remains the ownership of the landowner, CCC does not own the property, and after the agreement is finalized, the role of CCC (or any land trust) is an annual checkup.
“While a conservation mindset is required, we know a pat on the back for conserving land and protecting wildlife doesn't pay the bills.” Which is why, Beh said, this legislation is a “huge improvement. It blows (the previous financial incentive) out of the water.”
Lidov said, “Anecdotally, we are hearing from our land trust members that, since the law went into effect earlier this summer, their phones have been ringing off the hook from landowners interested in conserving their properties. Land trusts are trying to keep up with the demand to ensure more landowners can leverage this opportunity.”
Another important part of this bill is that it expands the definition of “landowner” to include water entities like water districts and ditch companies, Lidov said, allowing more organizations to donate conservation easements and take advantage of the state tax credit.
Ranchers who are facing pressure to sell their land or economic hardship due to the pandemic have an added incentive to stay on their land and continue producing. Especially in rural communities.
“This contributes significantly to local economics that rely on agricultural production,” she said. “Conserving their land creates many benefits for the communities that surround them—such as providing fresh local food for Colorado and beyond; providing employment; providing healthy, contiguous habitat for wildlife who rely on these lands; providing the scenic vistas Colorado is known for; and in some cases, creating access to trails and rivers for hiking and fishing.”
Protecting critical open space, water rights and wildlife are key components in a successful and desirable easement. The CCC recently finalized a 600-acre easement with Arrowpoint Ranch in Nathrop. The working cattle ranch is along the U.S. 285 scenic byway and the Arkansas River, and it sits across the river from Brown's Canyon National Monument.
Beh said that conservation easements in Chaffee County often require agricultural land to remain agricultural land. Also, it ensures the water rights are tied to the property forever.
“That's a big deal,” Beh said. “Sometimes (the land is) valued at millions of dollars and it takes several years to complete.”
Art Hutchinson, Salida, said it took about 6 years to finish the two easements on his historic working ranch property. One is with Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust and the other is with CCC. Together they total about 600 acres.
“My dad (Dr. Wendell Hutchinson) was very adamant that we keep the landscape open, maintain cows and the working ranch as much as we could,” Hutchinson said. “I think he realized change was coming.”
Hutchinson explained that the easements “gave them some flexibility” but admitted there is still a downside. “In perpetuity is a long time, and ranching, unfortunately, does not make much money.”
Hutchinson explained that when his daughter, Abby, was in college, she was told that in Colorado a single family needs a minimum of 350 animals to make “somewhat of a living ranching.” In Texas, unless you owned an oil or gas well, ranchers needed to subsidize their ranch or only ranch part-time.
“Right off the bat, Abby realized it would be an uphill battle to make (the ranch) somewhat profitable,” Hutchinson said.
Commenting on the new legislation he said, “That should make a big difference to people. Of course, people have said, ‘Too bad you guys didn't wait.’” He laughed, “But that's what it is.”
Hutchinson said the bill should “improve the atmosphere" for conservation, that and seeing other ranchers currently operating in casements, like himself, "haven't fallen off the planet or anything" will “bring more people out, and that's a good thing. I applaud (Polis) for his efforts. I think it's a good move.”
CCC Celebrates their 20-year anniversary with their annual fundraiser Oct.14 at Hutchinson Ranch. Since their founding, CCC has preserved in perpetuity 5,000 acres with 37 different landowners.
Other recent successes for the land trust include acquiring 170 acres along the Arkansas River in Lake County. Through a decade of collaborative effort between Lake County Government, Lake County Open Space Initiative, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and CCC, the wildlife area was finalized in December 2020. It has been designated the Shawn Andrick Memorial Wildlife Area.
CCC also launched a new program called the Community Conservation Connection, which offers short-term conservation easements. It's funded in part by Chaffee Common Ground, and since it was launched more than a year ago, 10 landowners have joined, protecting 4,000 acres for 5 years.
Beh said skeptics say a short-term protection is a waste because after the years are up, the landowners can sell or develop it anyway.
“There has always been tension between working ranchers and conservationists,” he said. “We're trying to break down the walls a little bit, and that starts with honest conversations.”
The process of entering into a forever contract is long, Beh said, but this program is a good way of “starting conversations over kitchen tables” and for landowners to “dip in a toe” to see if conservation is a good fit.
Tickets for the CCC fundraiser are $50 per person and include a silent auction, catered dinner by Kalamatapit and live music. More information can be found at centralcoloradoconservancy.org.