Conservation partnerships are helping to protect farmland from development

If you take a trip through rural America, you will pass one farm after another that produces an abundance of food to feed both America and the world while supporting millions of jobs. These farms also serve as habitat for wildlife, including approximately half of our country’s protected species.

Family farms remain an integral part of the U.S. agricultural sector. However, due to rising costs, big farms getting bigger, and encroaching development, far too many family farms are being lost. In fact, more than 40 acres of farm and ranch land is lost hourly to development, or nearly 1,000 acres every day.

One solution is increased use of conservation easements, a vital instrument in protecting land for future use. Individuals, families or partnerships of unrelated individuals can enter into conservation easements, which are voluntary and legally-binding agreements, to protect lands from future development while allowing the continuation of activities like farming.

Conservative partnerships provide an affordable route for family farmers faced with the difficult decision whether to keep the farm in the family for future generations or to sell to a developer due to the high costs of upkeep. Through partnerships, farmers and ranchers can join together with new partners to utilize the conservation easement tax incentive and thus stay afloat financially. The intent of Congress in developing this incentive was to spur land conservation, and conservation partnerships provide a viable alternative for families who would otherwise have no option but to sell their land. Not only does this keep the farmer in business, it protects the land from future development for generations to come.

It is unquestionable that continued government investment is vital. However, conservation is expensive and too important of a mission to rely on government-funded efforts alone. We also need to encourage the private sector to set up and conserve more farmland so we can protect more of our important and finite natural resources. Seventy percent of the nation’s land is privately owned, meaning that conservation by farmers and ranchers is essential for a thriving U.S. agricultural system.

Having spent 35 years in the agri-business and conservation sectors, formerly as CEO for the National Wild Turkey Federation, I have observed firsthand the threat urban development plays in habitat loss and wildlife habitat fragmentation and loss. Fortunately, conservation partnerships are helping to protect farmland from development and preserving America’s remaining wildlife habitats.

Congress created a policy that is working as intended. Both family farmers and our environment benefit from the conservation easement incentive policy every day, and Congress should protect and strengthen this tax incentive so it will continue to benefit our environment for future generations.

­—George Thornton is Chairman and CEO of the Heritage Preservation Trust and former CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation.