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What Is A Conservation Easement?

Land trusts used to buy land outright. They would then hold it, steward it and protect it. But in recent years, land trusts have more frequently been relying on other tools to ensure that certain values are preserved in perpetuity.

In Alberta, the tool being used more frequently to do that is called a conservation easement (CE).

Usually, an owner of land has the right to sell it, build on it, subdivide it, cultivate it, log it, drive over it, fence it, graze it, and so on. A person who owns real property has quite a few options and rights. But as the owner you 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 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.

Let's say you own a piece of native grassland. It's never been cultivated. It also shows evidence of teepee rings. You could enter a legal agreement, such as a conservation easement, with a land trust interested in conserving such cultural and ecological aspects. 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 know that no matter who owns the land in the future, those values will be conserved. The conservation easement will appear on the title, just like a utility right-of-way or a mortgage. 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 a bequest and may then put a conservation easement in place,
  • they can buy CEs from the landowners, 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.

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