Conservation tax credit program too critical not to fix

Aubert Ranch was put in permanent conservation in 2006 and the owner Maxine Aubert received transferable tax credits program through Mesa Land Trust. Photos of the Aubert’s property courtesy of John FielderAUBERT RANCH 1

Maxine Aubert spent her honeymoon as the camp cook for the family sheep ranching operation atop Pinyon Mesa, southwest of Grand Junction. In the following decades, she returned each summer with her husband, Auggie, a crew of relatives and hired help. Children soon joined the mix, and later grandchildren. Summers with her family among aspen forests and wildflower-filled meadows were an annual ritual that Maxine repeated for 52 years.

Perched on the rim of Unaweep Canyon, the Aubert Ranch is a strategically located wildlife mecca. It provides critical habitat for deer, mountain lions and bears, and is a migration corridor for one of Colorado’s premiere elk herds.

After her husband passed away, Maxine became determined to conserve the place that held so many memories. Because of its incredible wildlife and scenic values, my organization, the Mesa Land Trust, was delighted to help.

Colorado’s conservation easement tax credit offered the perfect tool to make Maxine’s dream a reality. In 2006, Maxine donated a conservation easement, safeguarding a family legacy and protecting a remarkable piece of state.

Unfortunately, problems in the state’s management of the conservation easement program may make success stories like this less common.

An innovative tool

In 2000, Colorado established the nation’s first transferable conservation easement tax credit. The idea was simple. Landowners who voluntarily protect their land by entering into a perpetual conservation agreement with land trust or governmental entity would receive a tax credit. The amount would be established by an appraisal based on how much value landowners were giving away by restricting forever the subdivision and development of their property.

In making the credit transferable, the legislature acknowledged that much of our state’s most important private properties are owned by land-rich, cash-poor farmers and ranchers. Without high taxable income, a credit offered them little value. Giving landowners the option of selling the credit to a high-income taxpayer solved the problem.

This tool reflects Colorado’s values. It is landowner-driven, based on private property rights, and it relies on carrots, not sticks.  It rejects a command-and-control, top-down approach, acknowledging that local communities can best determine local conservation priorities.

The results have been remarkable.  By 2016, conservation easements had protected more than 2.2 million acres across the state.

It has created an enduring value.

These 3,400 square miles touch every corner of Colorado. On the Eastern Plains, more than 100,000 acres of short-grass prairie, critical to local ranching economies and home to 11 species of hawks, falcons and eagles, have been conserved.

In every major river basin in the state, trout flourish in streams and tributaries coursing through conserved land.

Further west, across nine counties, conservation easements protect nearly 90,000 acres of habitat occupied by the threatened Gunnison sage grouse. And the next time you bite into a juicy Palisade peach, there’s a good chance it came from one of the area’s 45 conserved family orchards.

These are only a few examples of how conservation easements benefit the state. There are thousands more. A Trust for Public Land study, peer reviewed by a Colorado State University economist, found that conservation easements delivered $6 of value for every $1 invested by Colorado.

Working together to get it right

Like any new major policy initiative, the conservation easement tax credit has required fine-tuning. Land trusts, taxpayers and the state share the same goal — an effective program that protects Colorado’s incomparable natural heritage — so it is no surprise that conservationists have proactively reached out to lawmakers and regulators to improve the program.

In the tax credit’s early years, a few unscrupulous actors and sham organizations worked to game the system. In response, lawmakers, government officials and conservationists worked together to develop legislative fixes enacted in 2008 and 2013.

The program now requires that land trusts receiving conservation easements be certified by the state, and tax credits are issued only after an exhaustive process that includes review of biological studies, conservation agreements, appraisals and other materials.

These safeguards have eliminated abuse of the tax credit.

But the pendulum swung too far.

Now state management bogs down the program.

A state audit released last November found that the Division of Real Estate takes too long to review applications. It found that redundant reports and poor management cause delays. Some landowners wait longer than a year for a credit.

The audit also identified problems with how the state reviews appraisals, finding that division fails to provide clear guidance to appraisers. Conservation easement appraisal standards are complex, requiring interpretation and professional judgment. Without clear direction, appraisers are left in the dark.

Worse, audit findings suggest the division has lost sight of the forest for the trees. The agency frequently required costly, time-consuming revisions to appraisals even though the modifications didn’t change the value of the tax credits awarded.

This delay has caused a vicious cycle of exploding fees. The slow review process has had a chilling effect on new projects, and since landowner fees fund the program, fewer projects means each one bears a larger share of the state’s costs. Landowners now pay $12,350 to apply for a credit, an increase of 268 percent since 2014. As fees soared, landowner waiting times grew.

The state must make significant improvements, starting with addressing management inefficiencies found by the audit.

The appraisal review process is broken. The audit revealed that appraisals sit on desks for months before reviews begin. Dozens now gather dust, awaiting an uncertain process. Rather than nip around the edges, the Division of Real Estate should look to a new model.

Fortunately, a good one can be found at Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and the Colorado Division of  Parks and Wildlife. They outsource appraisal reviews to independent licensed appraisers experienced in valuing conservation easements in the state. This offers a number of benefits.

By working with contractors, the state can quickly start reviews and better manage costs. This would also provide flexibility to hire more contractors as needed.

With contractors, the state can retain appraisers with specific expertise in property types or geographic regions, a breadth and depth of knowledge that is not reasonable to expect of division staff.

By contracting, the state benefits from the knowledge of professionals actively working in the field, tackling diverse valuation challenges. This expertise cannot be gained from a downtown Denver office. The licensed appraisers stay on top of emerging issues through required continuing education.

The state must also establish and communicate clear guidance for appraisals and their review. That would be consistent with uniform industry standards. The goal is to ensure appraised values are appropriate, not quibble over interpretations of standards that don’t affect tax credit values.

More important than ever

Colorado’s lands and waters are more than pretty places. They form the bedrock of our economy.

Statewide, farms and ranches had gross sales of more than $7.5 billion in 2014. Hunting annually injects more than $900 million into the state’s economy. Our natural beauty draws tourists from around the globe. In 2015, over 77 million visitors spent more than $19 billion here.

Our quality of life, which rests on our state’s incredible landscapes, serves as a powerful magnet attracting a highly qualified workforce from across the nation.

Yet this key economic driver faces increasing threats. Colorado’s population is projected to swell to over 8 million by 2045, adding as many new residents as live today in Denver, El Paso, Jefferson and Boulder counties combined. We must take action now to conserve our landscapes as we welcome millions of new neighbors to the state.

Private land conservation is an essential investment in Colorado’s future. And it’s popular, too. Year after year, voters pass local open-space measures to conserve treasured landscapes. A 2015 Colorado College poll showed voters of all political stripes resoundingly support more protection of natural areas.

Colorado’s future will be defined by the individual decisions that thousands of farmers, ranchers and other landowners make in exercising their private property rights in the coming years. Conservation easements offer an essential tool if we are to pass our state’s grandeur on to future generations.

I am reminded of this when I take one of my favorite road trips with my 9-year-old daughter, journeying from Grand Junction over Kebler Pass to Crested Butte. I am filled with gratitude when I pass orchards and farms protected by far-sighted landowners, and then climb through miles and miles of aspen forests. I see mountain pastures conserved by descendants of homesteaders and the wonder in my daughter’s eyes as she points out deer and elk. I smile, thinking that one day she may share a similar experience with her children.

It is incumbent upon us to fine-tune the tax credit program and put it to work.

Rob Bleiberg is executive director of Mesa Land Trust, a non-profit certified to accept donations of conservation easements that qualify for state income tax credits.