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Conservation Easements for Archeological Preservation 

12-09-2015 17:35

An architect might see an archeological site as a building that failed. Archeologists, however, see a fragile, nonrenewable resource that is rich with information about the past.

All archeological sites experience gradual processes of deterioration over time. However, across the U.S., dramatic rates of population growth and the conversion of rural land to urban are bringing further threats. For researchers to be able to excavate these sites and gain the information they hold in the future, when the needed funding as well as superior technology may be available, the sites must be kept intact now.

Traditionally, government has taken the lead role in preserving archeological sites— especially the federal government. Increasingly, the private sector is getting involved. The Archaeological Conservancy is a national organization that preserves sites through purchase or donation, for example. Recently, the private nonprofit Center for Desert Archaeology has begun using conservation easements as a tool to protect these sites.

One benefit of a conservation easement is that property stays in private ownership and on tax rolls, whereas government preserves or those owned by nonprofit organizations are generally not taxed. There may also be tax benefits to a landowner.

The Center’s two current easements (four more are under development) illustrate the range of potential applications —from rural to urban. Its first conservation easement is a parcel of 55 acres of undeveloped rural land in the San Pedro Valley of southern Arizona with three very different kinds of archeological sites on it—an 800--year--old village, a thousand--year--old hamlet, and an extensive area of prehistoric, dry--farmed fields with rock piles and rock terraces.

Center staff worked through many issues with the owners and now have an agreement that these 55 acres will never be subdivided and that there will be no surface disturbance or construction in archeologically sensitive areas. The landowners are satisfied that the land they love will be protected long after they are gone. To purchase this parcel would have cost well over $100,000, whereas the easement was a donation.

Recently the Center took an easement on a parcel that is being developed as a neighborhood park by the city of Tucson. Protection and interpretation of the remaining portion of a thousand-- year--old village, a central goal of this park, will be accomplished through limited land modification and low intensity activities. The Center will monitor this process over the long term, serving as an advocate for the archeological site.

Even if donated, an easement is not cost--free. The Center’s current policy is to set aside $10,000 in an endowment for each easement, to be donated, when possible, by the property owner. Investment interest on this amount should generate the income needed to cover the annual monitoring expense. As the fund increases over time, it will also build a reserve that can provide the resources needed to pursue legal remedies against easement violations. Having an adequate reserve is an essential element of an easement program because there is a risk that the relatively low initial cost could be wiped out by a future enforcement legal action.

At startup, the Center worked with a lawyer to adapt standard easement language to fit some of the unique aspects of archeological resources. It has since developed a relationship with a lawyer for a local land trust. Setting up an easement takes a minimum of a week of staff time, spread out over a month or two. A complicated easement could take much longer.

Currently the Center only takes easements in the southern half of the Southwest, the area where it has made a commitment to a long--term program of community--based archeology. The ability to maintain close, personal relationships with landowners who have donated easements and with their neighbors, and cultivate common values, plays a key role in reducing the likelihood that future landowners will challenge the easements. As the Center’s community--based archeology program expands in the coming years, so too will its easement program.

Publication Date: November/December 2004

#Archaeology #ForumNews #easements

Author(s):William H. Doelle