What is a conservation easement?

“A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and an eligible organization that restricts the activities that may take place on a property in order to protect the land’s conservation values. Each easement’s restrictions are tailored to the particular property, to the interests of the individual owner, and to the policies and purposes of the easement holder. Also known as conservation servitudes and conservation restrictions, conservation easements are recorded as deed restrictions, and the restrictions apply to all future owners of the land. The right to enforce the restrictions is held by the easement holder. To understand the easement concept, think of owning land as holding a bundle of rights. A landowner may sell or give away the whole bundle of rights, or just one or two of those rights. The rights given away, sold, or otherwise transferred to the easement holder may include, for example, the right to construct buildings, to subdivide the land, to restrict access, or to harvest timber. By selling or donating a conservation easement, a landowner retains some rights and gives up others by deeding them to a qualified holder.

The specific rights a property owner gives up and retains when granting a conservation easement at spelled out in each easement document. The owner and the prospective easement holder first identify the conservation values of the property, and then decide which uses and activities need to be restricted to protect these values. When an easement is signed and recorded, the owner (also called the grantor) conveys the rights to enforce these restrictions to a qualified conservation recipient (also called a holder or grantee), such as a land trust, governmental agency, or historic preservation organization.”

– quoted from The Conservation Easement Handbook, Chapter 1

Information for landowners who are considering a conservation easement

Conservation easements and public access

Public access to an eased land may be allowed, restricted, or prohibited depending on state law, the easement agreement, or the stated goal of an easement. Some people wonder why public dollars can be used to create easements on land that are only accessible by the private landowner. The reason is simple: these lands are not being protected for recreational or educational uses. Instead, they are often protecting working farmland or habitat for plants and animals. Public dollars are used to protect these lands because even though the public can’t access these lands, they are still indirectly gaining economic benefits from these private easements. Below are a few examples:

  • The NRCS Wetlands Reserve Program uses private easements to help landowners voluntarily restore and protect wetlands on private properties. Wetlands have great economic and ecological value because they reduce soil loss, naturally filter out water contaminants, and improve water quality. When properly managed, wetlands can reduce the workload of our sewage systems (which we pay for with our taxes) and provide a rich habitat for plants and animals.
  • Forested lands are put under easement in order to protect their environmental value or their economic value. Besides being a major source of oxygen, forests reduce soil erosion, maintain biodiversity, and sequester carbon. Easements on working forests assure sustainable forest practices and encourage long-term land stewardship.
  • From 2002 to 2006, 24 million acres of farmland were lost to development. Easements protect vitally important farmland from new development, ensuring that those properties can be farmed or ranched in perpetuity.

Peer-reviewed literature and policy briefs on easements

Peer-reviewed literature

Policy Briefs

Note: The opinions of the policy briefs may not reflect the opinions of the National Conservation Easement Database partner organizations.