Study: Conservation easements benefit state

From the GJ Daily Sentinel

Despite some operational issues, the state’s conservation easement program has helped preserve millions of acres and provided billions of dollars in tax credits to Colorado residents, according to a new study.

The study, performed by researchers and professors at Colorado State University, was done to help state lawmakers understand the benefits the state has seen through its Conservation Easement Tax Credit Program, including matching grants provided by Great Outdoors Colorado, to protect land from future development.

“The taxpayers’ foregone revenues have been well spent, despite some of the concerns … about the program,” CSU agricultural economics professor Andrew Seidl told the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday. “Given the supply and demand conditions, that is, we are not making any more land, the future returns are likely to increase. Coloradans benefit from open space. Investments are generating substantial public benefits currently, and it’s quite likely they will continue to do so into the future with continued investment.”

The audit committee has been trying to track how well the tax credit program is working, and to see if it is complying with recent recommendations issued last winter, most of which had to do with the Division of Real Estate’s ability to administer changes to the program that the committee had the Colorado Legislature approve in 2014.

According to the study, in the 22 years the conservation easement program has been in effect — it allows landowners to get tax credits for preserving their land from development — 2.1 million acres have been set aside.

That breaks down to about 300,000 acres of farmland, 270,000 acres of elk severe winter rangeland, 4,100 miles of protected stream, creek or river frontage, and 19 percent of the Gunnison sage-grouse protection areas, according to the study.

Last December, the committee heard an audit of how its changes to the program were faring, which included a recommendation to increase fees for applicants who apply for the credits to ensure the program has enough money to pay for itself.

Auditors who completed that audit said they found it difficult to determine the overall benefits of the easement programs, which is what prompted CSU to do its study.

On Tuesday, the committee heard an update to those recommendations. Since that audit, the program has caught up on a backlog of applications, and did increase its fees.

Marsha Waters, director of the Division of Real Estate that oversees the program, said one recommendation would require legislative approval. That was to share certain information with the Colorado Ownership, Management and Protection Map, the most comprehensive map of protected lands in the state.

“I don’t want there to be a perception that conservation easements equal non-productive land,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and a member of the audit committee. “There is a little bit of a misconception that a conservation easement means we just protect open space and it’s just pretty trees. For example, conservation easements in my district represent 20 percent of the active agriculture in a single county.”