What Is A Conservation Easement?
Land Trusts used to buy land outright and then hold it, steward it, and protect it. But in recent years, land trusts have more frequently been relying on other tools that can be used to ensure preservation of certain values in perpetuity. In Alberta, the tool that is being used more frequently is called a conservation easement (CE).
Usually, any owner of any land has the right to sell it, build on it, subdivide it, cultivate it, log it, drive over it, fence it, graze it, etc. A person who owns real property has quite a few options and rights. But the owner can also sell or donate some of those rights to a land trust organization while still retaining the rest of the rights. For instance, while the landowner continues to own the land and certain rights to the land, the easement might restrict other rights such as logging, subdivision, or conversion of native prairie to cultivation. Conservation easements are as wide-ranging and different as are the values that landowners may be trying to protect. A wetland might be conserved as an important habitat area and allow people to hunt there, or it might be conserved with hunting banned. Both types of easements are common in Alberta.
By way of illustration, let us say that you own a piece of land that is all native grassland because it has never been cultivated and that it also shows evidence of teepee rings. You could enter a legal agreement, such as a conservation easement, with a Land Trust interested in conservation of such cultural and ecological aspects of land. You could specify in the easement that the teepee rings and the native grasslands surrounding them remain undisturbed. Conservation easements are legal documents that flow with the title to the land. By placing some rights with a Land Trust, you would have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that no matter who owns the land in the future, those values will be conserved. The conservation easement will appear on the title, as would a right of way or a mortgage, and you could continue farming or ranching your land subject to the restrictions you have agreed upon.
Land Trusts hold conservation easements in various ways. They can buy or receive land as a donation or bequest and may put a conservation easement in place; they can buy CEs from owners; or they can accept donations of conservation easements from owners. Increasingly, landowners are using CEs as a tool in tax and estate planning while also conserving values they believe in.