What is a land trust?
Land trusts, also known as land conservancies, are community-based, nonprofit organizations dedicated to the permanent protection and stewardship of land for the public good. Simply put, they work with landowners to voluntarily conserve open lands located within their service area. Across the country, land trusts are at the forefront of work to safeguard a diverse and connected natural world, support a vibrant working-lands economy, broaden access to the outdoors, and foster an ethic of engagement with the landscapes that sustain our quality of life. To date, our members in Washington have conserved well over a million acres of vital open space, and represent a community of staff, board members, supporters, and volunteers over 60,000 strong.
Each land trust looks a little different depending on where they work and the communities they serve, but their collective success rests on an approach that is voluntary, cooperative and incentive based. Because they are private charitable organizations, land trust can negotiate discreetly and offer tax benefits to landowners looking to establish an open space legacy, as well as respond more quickly and creatively to emerging opportunities than local, state or federal governments. Chances are, some of your favorite places in Washington involved the diligent work of one or more of our member land trusts behind the scenes! Visit our Spotlight page to see some recent successes.
How does a land trust work?
Part of being a land trust involves finding the right tool based on the conservation values of the land and the wishes of the landowner. Land Trusts protect land through three main tools: conservation easements, land acquisitions, or partnerships. Conservation easements are a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that limits certain uses of a property, while a fee acquisition is the out-right donation or sale of property to a land trust. In other cases, a land trust may act as the trusted local partner who helps to finance and negotiate a conservation transaction without ever owning any part of the land. Occasionally, land trusts may use other tools (Mutual Covenants, Deed Restrictions, Rights of First Refusal, Purchase of Development Rights, etc.) but in every case the goal is to ensure the vital public benefits the land provides are safeguarded forever. Learn more about conservation easements and fee acquisitions.
How do I conserve my land and what are the benefits?
Landowners seeking to conserve their land should contact a local land trust to get more detailed information about the conservation tools available to them. As mentioned above, land trusts work with several different tools to acquire land for permanent protection. WALT member land trusts are experts at working with landowners to craft a result that works best for the landowner and their community on each individual transaction.
Donations of land, conservation easements or money may qualify for income, estate or gift tax savings. Properly structured land trusts are exempt from federal and state income taxes and sometimes from local property and real estate transfer taxes. Perhaps the most important benefit, a conservation easement can be essential for passing undeveloped land on to the next generation. By removing the land’s development potential, an easement typically lowers the property’s market value and reduces the potential estate tax. Whether a landowner donates an easement during life or by will, it can make a critical difference to their heirs’ ability to keep the land financially viable as open space.
What types of lands can be protected by land trusts?
Every land trust has different conservation priorities based on where they work and the needs of their community, but here are some common types of characteristics that land trusts will look for when identifying an important project:
Parks, trails, public preserves and access points. Find your local land trust to learn about lands that may be accessible to the public.
Natural habitat for wildlife, fish and plants such as prairies, forests, bluff lands, or wetlands
Watershed areas like lakeshores, rivers, streams, and other natural features
Scenic landscapes, particularly those with local community, cultural or historic significance
Working landscapes like farms, forest, and ranch lands that have special significance for growing food and fiber