New programs in land conservation

by Sarah Fay Campbell

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Callaway

The recently approved U.S. farm bill included renewed funding for agricultural easement programs, which pay landowners for improving and conserving their land.

The Georgia Conservancy is trying to get the word out to landowners about these programs, as well as other programs that can provide tax benefits for conservation or financial assistance for certain conservation projects.

“There are several different programs that are available,” said Fuller Callaway, land conservation specialist with the Georgia Conservancy.

The agricultural easement programs include the Wetland Reserve program, Farm and Forest Protection program and Grassland Reserve program.

These programs are competitive and are typically for larger landowners, but they can result in payments of millions of dollars. Payments can be up to $4,000 an acre for degraded wetlands that are restored to their natural state.

Landowners who don’t qualify for those programs can put conservation easements on their property and take a charitable tax deduction.

And there are financial assistance programs to help pay for conservation or land improvement projects geared toward conservation.

When a conservation easement is put on property, the property can’t be developed, but can continue to be used as agricultural land. The difference in the value of the property as agricultural property or as developed property can then be considered a charitable donation for tax purposes, Callaway said. In addition to the federal tax deduction, Georgia allows a 25 percent tax credit, which can be used by the landowner, or transferred to someone else for a payment.

Callaway said that, in most cases, conservation easements only become financially profitable for tracts 200 acres or larger, unless the property is in an area subject to heavy development pressure.

The financial assistance programs are available for “really any size property owner,” said Callaway. The programs can help landowners pay for things such as fencing off creeks or restoring native grasses. There are no use restrictions on the land that receives money from these programs.

The Wetland Reserve program is for wetlands that have been drained or otherwise degraded so that they can be used for farm or forest land. Soil type is also considered. When a project is approved, the Natural Resource Conservation Service pays the entire cost of the restoration, plus it pays the landowner a per-acre price for the restored wetlands.

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Callaway. “Not a lot of property qualifies for it, and it is also competitive, but if your property meets that qualification, then it is a fabulous deal.”

There’s no minimum acreage. “Last year, the funding was for properties from 30 acres to 2,000,” Callaway said. “It really just depends on the amount of restoration that needs to be done and what the conservation benefits will be for that restoration."

The Farm and Forest and Grassland Reserve programs focus on land that is in agriculture production and that has certain soil types. Under these programs, the federal government pays the landowner 50 percent of the value of a conservation easement.

The landowner gets to claim a 25 percent tax deduction, but is required to find an entity to fund the remaining 25 percent. Callaway said that the Office of Management and Budget is currently considering whether or not to keep the 25 percent match requirement.

That requirement “has been the most difficult part,” Callaway said.

Final decisions should be made in May.

If you’re interested in any of these programs, the best thing to do is contact Callaway and see if you might qualify.

You can contact Callaway at 404-876-2900 ext. 113 or FCallaway@gaconservancy.org.



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