Colorado land trusts want increased support for easement tax credits to help “double down on conservation”

Provided by John Fielder/The Conservation Fund Banded Peak Ranch in Colorado's southern San Juan Mountains has been protected with a conservation easement preventing any development.

Keep It Colorado, the statewide coalition of land conservation groups, has a 10-year plan to conserve 3.3 million acres of private land by 2033.

That’s twice the amount of private land in Colorado that has been protected with conservation easements since 1965.

To get to 6.6 million acres, conservation trusts need to double the resources available and double its outreach in what Keep It Colorado boss Amy Beatie calls “doubling down on conservation.”

“We have this sense that go-time is now,” said the new executive director of Keep It Colorado, citing growing pressure over the fragmentation of wildlife habitat, the increasing severity and frequency of wildfires and Colorado’s growing population. “We are feeling a real urgency in terms of being able to protect land and do it in a really smart way.”

Keep It Colorado has new polling data showing widespread support for conservation. A New Bridge Strategy poll of 600 registered Colorado voters conducted from Sept. 29 through Oct 4. found more than 83% of respondents were eager to protect water and wildlife habitat in the state. The poll showed 87% of respondents agree that protecting water and land in the state is important to the economy and 82% agreed investment in conservation supports jobs in Colorado’s recreation, agriculture and ranching economies.

The 25-question poll, commissioned by Keep It Colorado, also found 86% of residents supporting state lawmakers continuing tax incentives for conservation easements and 73% supporting an increase on the cap for tax incentives. The poll had a 4-percentage point margin of error.

The Colorado Division of Conservation regularly hits its $45 million annual cap on tax credits and the waitlist for next year’s credits is full.

Lori Weigel, whose New Bridge Strategy has conducted the State of the Rockies Poll with Colorado College for the last 13 years, said voters connect land conservation with the health of the Colorado economy, the strength of farms and the ability to have locally grown food.

“Even at a time when people are really concerned about budgets and government spending overall,” Weigel said, “there is a sense that these tax incentives are so important that we ought to increase the incentives across the state.”

The state’s conservation easement tax credit program was created in 2000, offering landowners $100,000 per easement.The program was capped at $22 million in 2011, $34 million in 2013 and has remained capped at $45 million since 2014. The tax credit limit per easement has grown from $260,000 in 2003 to $1.5 million.

Last year the Division of Conservation approved 53 applications for conservation easements in 27 counties on 56,550 acres valued at $141 million. The value of the land is higher than the tax credits because all easements that earn Colorado tax incentives must have a charitable component. Deals where the landowner gets full value in exchange for the easement do not qualify for the Colorado tax credits.

A 2017 analysis of the state’s conservation easement tax incentive program by Colorado State University showed Colorado taxpayers realizing $4 to $12 in public benefit from conserved private land for every $1 invested in protection. Those benefits – clunkily defined as “ecosystem services” – include water and wildlife protections, views, air pollution removal, strengthened agriculture and recreation and increased biodiversity. 

Keep It Colorado is working with state lawmakers on legislation to renew and grow the state’s tax incentive program. They are using the new poll results to help gather support. The group also is touting several case studies to trumpet the importance of the conservation easement program, highlighting owners who have used state tax breaks to protect acres near Rocky Mountain National Park, farmland in Montezuma County and the 18,000-acre May Ranch in Prowers County.

The group has not proposed a specific amount for an increased tax incentive cap and while it is “doubling down on conservation,” it is not planning to ask for a twofold increase in the existing cap to $90 million, Beatie said.

“Conservation is universally appreciated by Coloradans,” Beatie said. “It is one of those things that is urban, rural, small town, large city and it is critically important for the health of the state.”

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