Haub School of Environment
and Natural Resources
University of Wyoming
Bim Kendall House
804 E Fremont St
Laramie, WY 82072
Conservation easements are a valuable tool to protect critical lands within, adjoining, or near public lands in Wyoming. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and an eligible easement holder that restricts future activities on the land to protect its conservation values. Easements are especially applicable in situations where the landowner is not interested in selling their land but is willing to place an easement on the property to dedicate the land for a specific purpose. An example of this would be placing an easement on the land that limits future development but allows certain agricultural production practices to continue.
A conservation easement is a partial interest in real property. In granting a conservation easement, the landowner retains ownership of the property and gives up some or all development rights in perpetuity. The party that holds the easement, whether it is a public agency or a non-profit organization, has a long-term responsibility to administer and monitor the easement and to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions of the easement agreement. The types of entities that are eligible to hold easements are usually specified in a state’s conservation easement statute. In Wyoming, these are specified as a federal or state agency or a charitable trust whose purpose is to preserve land. It is also possible for federal programs to make agreements for 99- or 30-year leases, as opposed to a permanent easement agreement. Sometimes in these agreements or permanent conservation easements a government agency will turn administration and monitoring responsibilities over to a land trust or another conservation organization.
The terms of an easement agreement are negotiated between a private landowner and a public agency or non-profit conservation organization. Either party may initiate the conversation about creating a conservation easement. Each conservation easement is tailored to fit a specific situation, landowner, and parcel of land. Typically, the overarching purpose of granting a conservation easement is to protect open space, wildlife habitat, visual quality and aesthetics, and traditional land uses such as agriculture. In Wyoming and many other Western states, usually little or no public recreation is permitted on conservation easement properties, although public access to portions or all of a property can be a part of the easement terms. This is determined on a case-by-case basis by the landowner and the entity holding the easement.
Conservation easements may be acquired by donation or by purchase. Often, donated easements involve a tax incentive for the landowner, but in some situations the landowner may simply want to see the land protected from future development. If a landowner wishes to realize income tax benefits, certain criteria must be met, and the easement must: 1) be donated or sold for less than its actual value; 2) impose certain restrictions to protect the conservation value of the land in perpetuity; 3) be donated or sold to a qualified organization; and 4) meet a certain conservation purpose. Conservation purposes may include the preservation of open space, the protection of habitat or ecosystems, and/or the preservation of land for public recreation, education, or historical significance. Usually, easement purchases are completed on the basis of an appraisal of the value of the development rights of the land to be acquired or donated. A qualified appraiser assesses the difference between the fair market value of the property, often using comparable sales in the area, and the restricted value of the property under the easement. In other words, the appraiser makes two appraisals: one of the property in its current condition and a second as though it were subject to the conservation easement. The easement is legally recorded in the registry of deeds and binds current and future owners of the land to the terms of the recorded easement.
Federal agencies may seek out trust organizations to administer and monitor a conservation easement, and individual landowners also utilize land trusts to negotiate and create conservation easements on their land. Land trusts are generally private, non-profit organizations that may or may not act as an advocacy group. Different land trusts have varying values and missions and choose their projects accordingly. For more information on land trusts and conservation easements, please see the section on “Land Trusts and Conservation Partners,” the Land Trust Alliance Web site (www.landtrustalliance.org) and its online Learning Center, and the Conservation Easement Handbook by Elizabeth Byers and Karin Ponte (2005).
Figure 1 - Land Ownership in Wyoming
Use of Conservation Easements in Wyoming
The use of conservation easements to protect private land from future development seems to be gaining acceptance among landowners in Wyoming. The Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Wyoming Land Trust (formerly Green River Valley Land Trust), Jackson Hole Land Trust, The Conservation Fund, and the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust have had considerable success in working with private landowners to craft conservation easement agreements on both small and large parcels of land. The USFS has played an active role in referring landowners to the appropriate conservation groups, in supporting the use of easements in Wyoming, and in providing funding for private land conservation. Examples of such conservation easements include:
Conservation Easement Criteria
Criteria for considering conservation easements varies among public agency and private organization easement holders, but most easement administrators seek lands that have some kind of value for habitat, wildlife, open space, agriculture, or community. Examples of lands with such value include:
Land trusts in particular consider lands that fit the organization’s mission and may not consider easement proposals for lands that are bordered by unprotected lands, existing development, or planned development that may affect the value of the land under consideration.
Finally, the conservation value must meet the standards outlined in a state’s statute for conservation easements. For Wyoming’s legal standards, see the Uniform Conservation Easement Act W.S. 34-1-201 through 207; available online at: http://legisweb.state.wy.us/statutes/statutes.aspx?file=titles/Title34/T34CH1.htm.
Terms and Restrictions
Conservation easements generally allow for traditional uses of the land to continue while restricting very specific future activities. Allowable uses may include agricultural operations and necessary improvements such as building structures, fencing, and water infrastructure. Depending on the terms of an easement, the landowner may sell the land, gift it, or pass it on to a family member, and build additional residences on the land. The landowner retains personal access, and unless public access is specifically included in the easement, the landowner also retains control of access to the land for recreational uses such as hunting and fishing.
Restricted activities are clearly delineated in conservation easement agreements and generally include dumping, surface mining, subdivision, residential or commercial development, and commercial uses not related to agriculture. The rights of mineral estate owners, which may belong to a party other than the surface landowner, remain under the legally recorded ownership and are not hindered or negated by the placement of an easement unless the owner of the mineral estate is party to the conservation easement.
Creating a Conservation Easement
Although public agencies and private organizations may have different processes for creating and negotiating an easement agreement, the general steps are as follows:
Figure 2 - USFS land and land trust holdings in Wyoming.
The Jackson Hole Land Trust offers a useful conservation easement template on their Web site: http://jhlandtrust.org/pdfs/ConservationEasementTemplate.pdf.
Wyoming Legislation Pertaining to Conservation Easements
In 2005, the Uniform Conservation Easement Act (UCEA; W.S. 34-1-201 through 207) was passed in Wyoming. This Act facilitates the use of conservation easements by land trusts for the protection of open space. This standard set of regulations for the creation, alteration, and termination of conservation easements also allows for easier enforcement. Furthermore, the statute protects the state’s property tax base and the rights of mineral estate owners.