Congress weighs new conservation incentives

This photo was taken in a 20-acre "preserve area" of primarily forested wetland at Rosebank Plantation which will remain untouched into perpetuity through the provisions of the conservation easement. Forested wetlands provide many wildlife habitat components such as breeding grounds, nesting sites and other critical habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife species as well as the unique habitat requirements of many threatened and endangered plants and animals.

With more than 750,000 acres of land set aside from development in the Lowcountry, the conservation movement here might seem to have all the momentum in the green world. But, for six years now, the programs have struggled in the region, as they have across the nation.

That might be about to change, and just in time: The turn-of-the-century Lowcountry building boom is stirring again and conservation advocates want to fill the holes in that "greenbelt" of publicly and privately protected lands that girds the Charleston metro area.

The U.S. House of Representatives just passed the America Gives More Act with broad, bipartisan support. It's a charitable donations bill that would provide major, long-term tax breaks for property owners who put their lands under conservation easements.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency, in which the owner agrees to permanently limit how the land is used, or developed, to protect its conservation values, according to the Land Trust Alliance. Under an easement, the owner and heirs continue to own and use the land within limits of the agreement.

Tax breaks expired in 2009 that had spurred the conservation effort in the Lowcountry and across the nation. Since then, breaks have been snarled in the congressional tug-of-war over extending the Bush-era tax cuts, or re-upped retroactively year to year.

Uncertainty over the future of the breaks left any number interested property owners sitting on prospective easements.

By the end of 2009, more than 130,000 acres of private land conservation easements had become part of that greenbelt, as rural owners wary of the housing boom sought to save their land. Trusts were still signing private conservation easements at record-breaking pace despite the 2008 recession.

Then interest fell, the number of contracts signed dropped to half or fewer of what they had been.

The failure of Congress to consistently extend tax breaks had "a chilling effect," in the words of Elizabeth Hagood, Lowcountry Open Land Trust executive director. "We have a lot of (prospective easements) sitting out there, a good deal of significant land in the six focus areas we need for protection, in the ACE Basin and along waterways."

The basin is the vast, wildlife-rich delta of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers south of Charleston. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been protected there in a landmark, public-private effort that became a model for programs across the nation.

The ACE effort galvanized and has been a linchpin for the greater Lowcountry effort. But since 2009, its effort too has struggled.

"The uncertainty makes a hard job harder," said Charles Lane, chairman of the ACE Basin Taskforce. The America Gives More act is a package of five bills that "would improve and make permanent a number of tax rules governing charitable donations and charitable organizations," including conservation easements, according to the summary provided by the House of Representatives.

"It creates incentives that make easements more accessible to average people, for what really is a very generous act," Lane said.

The bill's fate, like its predecessor tax breaks, is far from certain. The Obama administration has threatened to veto it unless money is found to replace the taxes, and it must pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"It may well be the system breaks down," said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina. But at least now it's an approved piece of legislation that can be added to an omnibus bill more likely to make it through, he said. "It's important that the House laid down a marker on where it is with conservation easements and tax benefits. It's important to long-time families trying to protect their traditional way of life. It's equally important protecting quality of life for newcomers," Sanford said.

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