Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What is a land
A. The goal of a
land and water conservation program is to permanently preserve as
many natural areas (and sometimes agricultural lands) as possible
using money from a dedicated funding source, such as municipal bonds.
The best conservation programs strategically target acquisitions
with the goal of protecting ecosystems, habitats, watersheds, and
endangered and threatened species, and provide matching grants for
local government conservation efforts. Land acquisition decisions
are made by a designated state review board.
Q. How does state
funding result in protected natural areas?
A. A sponsor (local
government, nonprofit, private citizen, or other) submits a project
proposal to the selected review board outlining the ecological potential
of the selected site. If the property meets the requirements of
the board, it is placed on the approved acquisition list. In time,
an appraisal is done to determine fair market value. In the case
of an outright purchase, the state will purchase the land with state
bond revenue and place it under protection. Other protection mechanisms
such as conservation easements, rights-of-first-refusal, and retained
life estates are also used.
Q. Why must the
state provide funds for local land protection efforts?
A. Protected natural
areas hold ecological and economic value that most significantly
benefits the communities surrounding such areas. States often consider
it their responsibility to provide the benefits protected areas
have to offer, such as improved economies, healthier environments,
and more recreational opportunities for their citizens. State funding
for these initiatives is the perfect compromise as local governments
often lack the economic resources for proper coordination. Furthermore,
federal conservation dollars for state projects are dwindling, requiring
states and municipalities to step forward on this issue.
Q. What qualifies
as a natural area?
A. A “natural
area” is defined as an area of unique scenic, historic, geologic,
or ecological value, and of sufficient size and character to allow
its maintenance in a natural condition through the operation of
physical and biological processes, usually without direct human
involvement. These areas are set aside to provide locations for
scientific observation of natural systems or to protect and/or restore
outstanding examples of natural interest and beauty. Natural areas
can be either publicly or privately owned.
Q. What is “green
A. Green infrastructure
is our nation’s natural life support system; an interconnected
network of protected land and water that supports native species,
maintains natural ecological processes, sustains air and water resources,
and contributes to the health and quality of life for America’s
communities and people. Conservation programs in states such as
Maryland and Florida have mapped out the green infrastructure in
their states and use this knowledge to target acquisitions. For
more information about green infrastructure, see SERC’s Policy
Issues Package on this topic.
Q. What are “ecosystem
A. Human societies
derive many essential goods from natural ecosystems, including seafood,
game animals, fodder, fuelwood, timber, and pharmaceutical products.
These goods represent important and familiar parts of the economy.
What has been less appreciated, until recently, is that natural
ecosystems also perform fundamental life-support services without
which human civilizations would cease to thrive. These include the
purification of air and water, detoxification and decomposition
of wastes, regulation of climate, regeneration of soil fertility,
and production and maintenance of biodiversity, from which key ingredients
of our agricultural, pharmaceutical, and industrial enterprises
are derived. This array of services is generated by a complex interplay
of natural cycles powered by solar energy and operating across a
wide range of space and time scales. The process of waste disposal,
for example, involves the life cycles of bacteria as well as the
planetwide cycles of major chemical elements such as carbon and
nitrogen. Such processes are worth many trillions of dollars annually.
Yet, because most of these benefits are not traded in economic markets,
they carry no price tags that could alert society to changes in
their supply or deterioration of underlying ecological systems that
generate them. Because threats to these systems are increasing,
there is a critical need for identification and monitoring of ecosystem
services both locally and globally, and for the incorporation of
their value into decision-making processes.(1)
Q. How does land
acquisition affect public access?
A. State funding
for conservation usually serves as a mechanism to provide the public
increased access to natural areas. State funds allow the public
to access areas that would have otherwise been private property.
Generally, recreational activities such as camping, canoeing, hiking,
and fishing are allowed and even encouraged. There may be some exceptions
in areas that were selected for protection because of the highly
sensitive nature of their species and ecosystems.
Q. How does state
funding legislation engage nonprofit organizations?
A. By encouraging
nonprofits to submit project proposals, the state is attempting
to build upon the vast amount of ecological knowledge nonprofit
organizations possess. In addition to providing the state with scientific
and strategic recommendations on land acquisition, nonprofits recognize
the state’s assistance through newsletters, magazines, conferences,
and other forums and outlets. This is a no-cost benefit to the state.
Also, nonprofits sometimes play a role in helping to acquire preservation
land by acting as intermediaries with landowners and assisting them
with tax and estate planning issues.
Q. What about
property rights and property taxes?
A. Property rights
advocates need not worry that their rights will be infringed upon
by state land protection activities. These initiatives are strategically
tailored to forge public-private partnerships that enable private
landowners who use their land in responsible ways to benefit the
citizens of the state. Even more significantly, all protection activities
are pursued on a voluntary basis.
Preserving public lands does not usually result
in increased property taxes; in fact, sometimes property taxes are
lowered as a result. Many conservation programs implemented by the
state compensate municipalities. Communities should be comforted
to know that public lands add more value to a region than any small
tax increase could counteract. (See the Fact
Pack for more information on property taxes)
Q. What is a conservation
A. A conservation
easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land
trust or government agency that protects the conservation values
(e.g., forest ecosystems, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, water
quality, open space) of a piece of land by permanently limiting
its present and future uses. Once a landowner and land trust agree
upon the terms of an easement, the trust accepts responsibility
for enforcing them, while the land stays under the ownership and
control of the landowner. Conserved land may still be mortgaged,
sold, or passed on to one’s heirs. In addition, donating an
easement may provide the landowner significant estate and income
Q. What is a right-of-first-refusal?
A. A first refusal
involves a negative contract obligating the land owner not to part
with the land without first offering it to the indicated interested
party. For example, if a private property owner decides not to sell
his / her land to the state for conservation purposes and instead
enters into a right-of-first-refusal contract, the state has the
first opportunity to acquire the property should the owner again
decide to sell.
Q. What is a retained
A. A retained life
estate is a gift plan defined by federal tax law that allows a landowner
to donate property to a government agency or land trust while retaining
the right to live on it for the rest of their life, a term of years,
or a combination of the two. A landowner may also use a vacation
home to create this kind of gift. While landowners retain the right
to live on their property, they continue to be responsible for all
routine expenses – maintenance fees, insurance, property taxes,
repairs, etc. If the landowner later decides to vacate their property,
they may rent all or part of their property in cooperation with
the custodial government agency or land trust. When the landowner’s
retained life estate ends, the government agency or land trust can
then use the property or the proceeds from the sale of the property
for the purpose designated by the landowner.
Q. How does the
state determine the price it will offer a landowner?
A. The property
is appraised to estimate its market value. For most land acquisition
projects, two separate appraisers are hired. Appraisals are used
as a basis for negotiations. A landowner should never expect less
than fair market value for his / her property.