Preservation and land trust professionals share a common goal: saving places that matter to our communities. We understand the value and importance of not only identifying and protecting important resources but also using these resources in meaningful and sustainable ways. We share a critical resource protection tool in our everyday work—the conservation easement, which we use to save everything from old growth forests and open spaces to one-room schoolhouses and shingle-style homes.
On October 26–28, 2017, land conservation professionals from around the country convened in Denver for Rally 2017: The National Land Conservation Conference. Hosted by the Land Trust Alliance, the annual conference features educational sessions focused on land conservation topics, many of which are also relevant for preservation professionals who manage preservation and conservation easements. Land trusts that work in land-based place-saving tackle many of the same issues as the preservation community.
Broadening the appeal of land conservation through partnerships was the focus of two plenary speakers who provided an inspirational, “200 miles above earth” view of land conservation work. Opening plenary keynote speaker astronaut Pam Melroy, one of the only two women to ever command the Space Shuttle, inspired the audience with stories from three space shuttle missions, explaining that “You can’t look at the earth from space and not be a conservationist.” Melroy spurred the audience to think about the far-reaching appeal of conservation work, including the importance of community-level efforts in the conservation of our planet.
Continuing on this theme, closing plenary speaker Luis Benitez discussed his work in the outdoor recreation industry, and his inspirational messages apply as much to the preservation field as they do to the conservation community. He told a deeply personal story about his connection to land conservation, which began with community conversations in the backroom of his grandfather’s store, and spoke of the need to translate conservation work to broad audiences and of the value of building connections with partners like the outdoor recreation industry.
Other conference sessions demonstrated that land trusts around the United States can serve as exemplary models for those of us stewarding preservation and conservation easements. Sessions about approvals, current federal tax issues, technology (including drones), and baseline documentation provided valuable insight into easement stewardship best practices that preservation practitioners can adopt and learn from.
A session called “Drones: Land Conservation from 400 Feet” explored the use of drones in land conservation work, including easement monitoring. In addition to discussing the complex federal regulations governing drone use, presenters and fellow attendees reviewed the benefits of GIS-based mission planning for collecting data at regular intervals. Such mission plans can be repeated once developed, which may be valuable for regular easement monitoring of large tracts of land. However, there are challenges to developing in-house drone programs, including staffing registered drone pilots and access to the technical expertise required to process the data. Using a drone for monitoring will not build a good relationship with a property owner; drones should therefore be used to supplement regular on-the-ground monitoring. Preservation organizations that are considering using drones for easement monitoring may find success in collaborating with conservation organizations that already have drone programs.
Amending conservation easements was another hot topic—it came up throughout the conference due to recent research and broader discussion about amendments. This year, the Land Trust Alliance updated its report, Amending Conservation Easements: Evolving Practices and Legal Principles, which provides principles that can help preservation easement–holding organizations guide their consideration of amendment requests. The Land Trust Alliance responded to the Internal Revenue Service’s 2017-2018 Priority Guidance Plan, which proposed additional regulation regarding conservation easement amendments. The Alliance prepared a white paper, concluding that this new regulation is unnecessary and disproportionate.
Key takeaways relevant to preservation and conservation easement stewardship were abundant throughout the conference.
- It is vital to establish written procedures in the conditional approval process before tough issues arise. The process is just as important as the outcome.
- Baseline documentation is an effective monitoring and defense tool. Its contents should focus on two questions: What does the easement protect? And what does the easement restrict?
- Land trusts are using a variety of phone- and tablet-based apps for easement monitoring, and offline use is an important element of a functional program. Mobile apps that land trusts are using include, but are not limited to, Avenza, Map Plus, and Fast Field Forms.
The goals and challenges that preservation and land trust communities have in common provide opportunities for collaboration. Preservationists should seek ways to work with land trust colleagues to mutually broaden the impact of the fields’ place-saving work. Reach out to a land trust in your city, state, or region to discuss conservation and preservation easement programs, and you may find a new ally, potential partner, or a new appreciation for the conservation work in your community.
The Land Trust Alliance publishes resources and hosts trainings related to conservation easement stewardship. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s easement resources are available through the Preservation Leadership Forum.
Raina Regan is the senior manager of the Easement Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Her primary responsibilities include evaluating and documenting new easements to be held by the National Trust and managing the existing easement portfolio.