Protected pastures: New tax incentives boost interest to #conserve private lands — The #Durango Telegraph

Ancient juniper at Weaselskin, La Plata County. Photo credit:

Click the link to read the article on the Durango Telegraph website (Jonathan Romeo):

A year after being passed, a new state law that increases the financial benefits of conservation easements has reinvigorated efforts, at unprecedented rates, of people who want to protect their land from development.

In Colorado, a conservation easement is a voluntary agreement with a property owner in which the owner agrees to limit development on the land for the preservation of scenic views, wildlife habitat and watersheds, among other values that benefit the public. While an agreement to limit development can devalue the full potential of a property, in return, the property receives a tax advantage. One such recent success story is a property known as “Weaselskin,” south of Durango on Florida Mesa, just off Highway 550. For years, the property owner, Jennifer Thurston, tried to get the land placed under a conservation easement, but the 50% tax credit just didn’t make the deal financially feasible. But the passage of HB 1233 pushed the project over the finish line. Now, 180 acres of farmland and piñon-juniper forest, an area critical for wildlife and home to untold numbers of Native American ruins, is protected under a conservation easement. And, the move is just the first of a multi-phase project to protect the larger Weaselskin property.

“We could have quit or stopped,” Thurston said. “But I said, ‘I will do this.’ Hopefully, we’ll serve as a model to show other property owners conservation easements can happen and not feel like you’re giving away the value of the land in the process.”

A vital role

In the late 1990s, Colorado started offering conservation easements, recognizing private lands play a vital role in the protection of open space and ecologically important areas, and to promote the heritage of Colorado’s rural landscape. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it became more popular as an option for preservation…Conservation easements, too, can take many forms. In 2016, the James Ranch family placed the bulk of its 420-acre property in the Animas Valley into a conservation easement to ensure the property continues to provide local meat and produce. In 2021, more than 700 acres northeast of Durango were conserved, mainly to protect the city of Durango’s water supply. And most recently, a Native American ruin site called Haynie, northeast of Cortez, received the designation. But the one common (and required) theme to properties that qualify for a conservation easement: they must have some public benefit quality…

But it’s not just the tax credit that’s persuading them. More than ever, landowners are feeling a sense of urgency to protect open space amid the influx of people moving to Colorado and extreme development pressures in the wake of the pandemic. James Reimann, conservation director for Montezuma Land Conservancy, which covers Dolores, Montezuma and western San Miguel counties, said he’s received six calls in just the past two weeks…Much like in La Plata County, [James] Reimann said landowners in his region want to protect their farms or ranches from development. Some hope to pass the land onto their children or the next generation. Others simply want to conserve the landscape for views or wildlife habitat.