Conservation trusts protect and conserve private lands and ecosystems – SaportaReport

By Hannah E. Jones

The Southern Conservation Trust (TBS) — a Fayettevillenonprofit focused on land preservation and stewardship – held the first installment of its adult education programs on June 30, beginning with a discussion on private land conservation.

Jesse Woodsmith during the seminar. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

The seminar was led by Director of Conservation and Stewardship, Jesse Woodsmith, who described the process and benefits of protecting private lands. Around 93 percent of Georgia land is private property and its preservation is essential to protect our local animals, plants and waterways.

Founded in 1993, SCT has over 65,000 acres under conservation in 13 Southeast states. Their properties range from the 1.75-acre Lake Claire Community Land Trust in Atlanta to an 8,000-acre lot in South Carolina.

“Suburban and urban green spaces are critically important to safeguarding green space,” Woodsmith said. “We think it all depends on the context and the importance of conservation in an area. Some of these smaller [plots] can be just as important as an entire mountain slope.

Conserving these lands helps create a mosaic of protected lands that allows our local and larger ecosystems to thrive. For instance, 95 percent of endangered species depend on private land.

Private lands are also home to many of our resources – more than half of America’s forests are privately owned and contribute 30 percent of our drinking water. If these lands are threatened by development, it can have serious impacts.

“Forests provide benefits whether they are near or far from you,” Woodsmith said. “There are very critical functions that healthy forests provide – water filtration, soil stabilization – but even very remote forests contribute to our environment in a larger sense.”

To protect the land and the natural life on it, landowners can place their acreage under a conservation easement with a land trust — “a legal agreement between the landowner and the land trust that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values.” About 50 Georgian organizations have the authority to hold conservation easements.

Under this agreement, the landowner still owns the property and can live in it or sell it, but the planning guidelines remain in place. Ted Turner is a famous example, as the second largest private landowner in the United States, much of which is under conservation easement.

A blue heron at TBS’s 120-acre Nesmith Preserve. (Photo courtesy of the Southern Conservation Trust.)

The Piedmont Region is home to 87 animal species and 16 habitats marked as high priority by the Georgia State Wildlife Plan 2015 – freshwater marshes, granite outcrops, rivers – and these areas are most important to most local trusts.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The owner hires a surveyor to document the land
  2. Land trust examines potential reasons for retention
  3. The land trust, owner and attorney discuss the terms and conditions of the conservation easement, which can be very tailored to the owners’ plans for the land
  4. The appraiser calculates the value of the tax deduction

For example, a landowner whose property borders a river could potentially place a conservation easement on their 15-acre lot. The owner can create their own guidelines for the agreement, as development is not permitted within 100 feet of the river.

Once the contract is signed, the trust agrees to serve as the permanent steward for the property. It comes with a fee, but the cost and easement are charitable donations and allow for tax deductions.

The need to protect our lands and their natural resources is felt nationally. In January, the Biden administration rolled out an initiative conserve at least 30% of our land and ocean territories by 2030.

If you would like to learn more about conservation easements and the importance of preserving private lands, Click here.