Land access is a hot topic in the hunting, fishing, and trapping community. Numerous nonprofits exist to promote it and numerous corporations in the outdoor industry have made it part of their mission to support it. Through these efforts, millions of dollars have been raised to preserve and defend public lands and access to those lands.
This phenomenon has been especially prevalent in the western half of our nation due to its abundance of public lands. Many western states have a majority of their acreage under federal or state ownership. Nevada, for example, at the extreme end boasts 76.5% of lands open to public hunting.
On the east coast, however, it is a different story. Most states do not hold majority public lands, and many have barely any at all. Maryland, for example, has only 5.5% of its acreage open to public hunting. Ohio, a mere 2.5%.
This raises the question, what does land access advocacy, and thus philanthropy, look like in the east as compared to the west?
In order to answer this question, I turned to Brent West, executive director of the High Peaks Alliance. The High Peaks Alliance (HPA) is a nonprofit in the greater Franklin County region of Maine. HPA’s mission is to ensure and enhance public access and opportunities for recreation in Maine’s High Peaks. So, who better to ask about land access in the east, than someone running an access organization in a state with only 6% of the land in public ownership.
Here are four ways Brent shared that a landowner can use their land to support public access.
An easement is a deed restriction on a piece of property that is owned by a third party. In the land access space, the most common type is a conservation easement. In this case, the landowner still retains ownership of the property, but they “sell” the development and management rights to a third party. A working forest easement is another popular type of easement in Maine which allows for all the activities needed to harvest timber off a piece of land to protect working forests from fragmentation and development.
As a landowner you can use the tool of a conservation easement to give your land to public recreation access. In this case, you would donate the development and management rights of a specific piece of property to a conservation organization. That organization would then have the responsibility to manage it for access according to the specific terms of the easement. When donating an easement, the grantor may get an appraisal and claim a charitable donation for the value of the development rights that were donated. This is usually only a portion of the full value of the land since the owner still retains private ownership of the property.
Of course, because of the restrictions that an easement places on a property, it can reduce the value of the property. Therefore, a conservation easement can be a particularly good avenue for a landowner that has held off on development and allowed public access their whole life but has no descendants (or no willing descendants) to continue managing the property in that way. This allows the landowner to preserve from development and for the use they desire in perpetuity despite future ownership by other persons or organizations.
Another, perhaps more direct, route a landowner can take is through an outright donation or property to a conservation organization. Like any asset-based gift, this would then be tax-deductible based on the value of the property as determined by a third-party appraiser.
One potential downside of this avenue for landowners is that, depending on the conservation organization, it may be more beneficial to them to sell the property rather than manage it. In fact, most organizations will require that landowners sign off on this before they will accept the property being donated. Especially if an organization has limited resources, this may be the best thing for them to do to advance their mission.
A land trust is a nonprofit organization that has a mission to hold and conserve land for public benefit. The public benefit could be habitat preservation, public access, or myriad other things. A landowner could, rather than donating to a nonprofit that may sell the land, sell or donate the land to a specific land trust that manages a property according to the same values as the landowner. So, the key here is picking the land trust that values access for hunting and fishing, such as the High Peaks Alliance.
An additional set of options for landowners looking to benefit public access through their land are the standard suite of planned giving options. These can range from as simple as a bequest of land in your will to a conservation organization to something as complicated as a charitable annuity, reverse mortgage, life estate, or remainder interest.
WHY DONATE LAND?
Brent answered this question succinctly: “there is no better way to leave a legacy for conservation, than donating a permanently protected property.” By doing so a donor ensures that his or her property will benefit generations of hunters, anglers, trappers, and outdoorsmen. Many people think of a permanent legacy gift as a donor’s name on a building but as Brent points out, those buildings will fade. A gift of land is the only truly permanent gift.
It is organizations like the High Peaks Alliance that are working to preserve and provide access in inventive ways to work with the land ownership dynamic on the east coast. You can learn more about the High Peaks Alliance by visiting their website.