Public Release: 

Clemson researchers receive NSF grant to examine impacts of conservation easements

Clemson University

CLEMSON, S.C. -- A team of Clemson University researchers has received $850,000 from the National Science Foundation for a four-year comprehensive study of conservation easements in the United States.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement where a private landowner sells or donates certain rights to their land without relinquishing ownership. The goal of many easements is to preserve large tracts of land, such as forestland or agricultural land, to prevent development. Some 23.5 million acres in the U.S. have been protected in this way, according to the National Conservation Easement Database.

Easements are held by federal, state and county governments, as well as a variety of nonprofit organizations. In South Carolina, conservation easements exist throughout the state, concentrated most heavily along the coast.

In the study, the Clemson team will examine a carefully selected sample of counties in regionally representative states across the U.S. In some of the counties chosen, there is public oversight in the easement placement process, and in others it is absent. All of the selected counties face pressure to develop the land for housing purposes.

"Among other objectives, we intend to compare the outcomes of conservation easements that were placed to preserve an aspect of biological diversity versus those that had other expressed reasons for easement placement, such as scenic or agricultural purposes," said Caitlin S. Dyckman, associate professor of city and regional planning and principal investigator.

"We will also compare easements created with public involvement and oversight against those created without public participation to see whether distinct patterns emerge. Among the intended beneficiaries of easements -- the public, private landowners, wildlife, ecosystems -- who is actually benefitting and who is not?"

A conservation easement is a permanent legal agreement that remains in effect when the land is sold or passed on to an heir. In return, landowners are often compensated outright and in the form of tax incentives at the federal level and sometimes at the state level. In South Carolina, for example, landowners who donate conservation easements on their property located in South Carolina receive a substantial tax credit for doing so.

The multi-year research grant is being administered by the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.

Richard Goodstein, dean of the college, said, "This study promises to shed new light on a legal tool that has been incentivized through tax deductions since 1980-- but has not been closely examined in this way. Congratulations to Professor Dyckman and her team."

"Clearly, there have been many benefits to land preservation," Dyckman said. "But cumulative easement placement may be subtly and permanently influencing our landscapes. In order to qualify for the federal tax deductions, an easement must be donated in perpetuity, meaning that these private arrangements between landowners and government agencies or nonprofits are effectively permanent, but are often made without public comment or oversight."

"In most cases, the public does not have access to the land under conservation easement despite the public subsidy, but there is broader public benefit through permanently conserved land more generally," said Dyckman. "Our work will tease out the more nuanced and fine-scale relationships between an easement's stated reasons, the physical benefits or effects it will create (in terms of open space preservation, relationship to other conserved lands, habitat preservation, etc.), the fiscal impacts on adjacent properties and the broader tradeoffs at a county level."

"We believe our findings will be of great interest to many, including land-use planners, tax policy analysts and conservation biologists. Are ecosystems and habitats maintaining species richness and connectivity? Are efforts to protect biological diversity and mitigate the effects of climate change working? We are trying to expose the linkages, feedbacks and complex relationships between the social and biological sciences that are embodied in the decision to place and maintain a conservation easement on a landscape."

In their study, the team will collect existing information about easements from a variety of sources at the county and state levels. They will conduct surveys of landowners who have sold or donated easements on their properties and with the land trusts who hold those easements. They will analyze the effects of conservation easements on land-use patterns and examine how public participation and oversight influences spatial outcomes. Finally, the team will examine the extent to which conservation easement land contributes to the biological and ecological integrity of the surrounding ecosystem.

Dyckman's co-investigators in the study are Mickey Lauria, professor of city and regional planning and director of Clemson's Ph.D. program in planning, design and the built environment; David L. White, research assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism; and Robert F. Baldwin, associate professor of conservation biology and geographic information systems, department of forestry and environmental conservation.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1518455. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Science Foundation.

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