by Mike Powell, Executive Director, Greenbelt Land Trust of Mid-Missouri
A dominant narrative following last November’s election was that the Democratic Party had left rural America behind, and rural Americans responded by defecting en masse to vote for Donald Trump. A variety of justifications for that defection have been floated, ranging from an affinity for Trump’s populist rhetoric and isolationist trade policies such as “I was worried about the fuel prices,” to a simple desire to watch the rest of America suffer the way rural areas have suffered in the face of increasing urbanization, outsourcing, and skyrocketing land prices. They didn’t care about Trump the policymaker – they wanted Trump the human hand grenade.
Although periods of profound partisanship are not uncommon in the history of our nation – let us not forget that a sitting Vice President once shot and killed one of his fellow founding fathers over a political dispute - it is not uncommon to hear descriptions of our political climate as more deeply divided than ever.
Despite these deep divides, some issues provide a profound – even jarring – level of unanimity. Here in Missouri, for example, profound partisanship characterized candidate races from the national level all the way down to the most small-scale local election. And yet, on the same ballot, 80 percent of Missourians voted in favor of the renewal of a constitutional amendment creating a statewide sales tax to fund conservation in the form of the State Parks and the Soil and Water Conservation District system. It passed in every county.
Let me run that by you again: in Missouri, the textbook example of a border state in virtually every conceivable way, the majority of the population and every single county -- rural and urban -- stepped back from their rage about outsourcing and their fears about a misogynist in the presidency and voted for conservation of our natural resources.
It is, of course, true that there are some partisan differences about how those resources should be conserved, and even in Missouri the State Parks system is facing a significant backlash over a series of late-2016 acquisitions under the outgoing Democratic governor. Despite these differences, we all believe that we should take care of the places in which we live.
It is unfortunate, then, that progressives tend to view protection of the environment as solely an enforcement tool. Indeed, a review of the “Environmental Protection” tag on this very blog reveals significant commentary about reactive legal action in pursuit of punishment for those who foul our waters and pave over our soils, and very little about proactive efforts to encourage and incentivize good stewardship. We worry about whether the EPA will retain the regulatory ability to punish those who protect our waterways, but rarely give a thought to encouraging our neighbors not to befoul rivers and streams in the first place.
After all, it is fundamentally an economic problem. Ranchers graze their cattle in streams because it is cheaper than building watering mechanisms, and the cattle infect the streams with E. coli. Farmers run their combines all the way to the river’s edge because they need every penny’s worth of corn they can get to cover the cost of their property taxes. Many of these problems can be fixed without punitive measures, but with the negotiated, proactive approach of permanent conservation easements.
A conservation easement is a policy-based exception to the rule against perpetuities that allows a landowner to donate some of their property rights to a qualified holder, typically a governmental entity or a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. These documents bind the landowner and all future landowners, and are extraordinarily flexible tools in protecting the conservation value of a property. An easement can do anything from requiring complex affirmative actions like adherence to organic agricultural methods to simple prohibitions on unchecked grazing and dumping. Landowners who encumber their land with conservation easements receive a substantial tax deduction, which was made permanent at the federal level in 2015. However, the transaction costs of an easement still represent a serious economic disincentive to many land-rich, cash-poor rural landowners.
Finding ways to incentivize the use of conservation easements represents an enormous opportunity to reach out to our rural neighbors and offer a way to work together to address an issue that threatens us all — and we don’t even need to invent the mechanism. As of now, 16 states have passed tax credits that incentivize conservation easements beyond the federal level, and utilization of conservation easements has skyrocketed in those states.
There remain times, of course, even in the bipartisan realm of conservation easements, where enforcement action is required. Whether by malicious intent or ignorance, a conservation easement is certain to be violated at some point along the long timeline of perpetuity. Court action may be required, and holders of easements should plan accordingly. Adding financial incentives to conservation easement donation also creates an incentive for abuse of the system, primarily in the form of appraisal fraud and most frequently in states like Colorado and Georgia, where the tax credit is transferable. A more liberal application of the carrot does not preclude the occasional necessity for the stick.
However, few easier opportunities exist for progressives to reach out and work to address very real problems in close collaboration with our rural neighbors, and, in doing so, we can rebuild a level of trust that has been failing for years.
For further information about conservation easements, contact Mike Powell at [email protected] or visit the Land Trust Alliance at www.landtrustalliance.org.
*Picture is from the Babcock Conservation Easement Property in Rural Moniteau County, Missouri