Sugar Creek Hollow, one of the 100-plus properties under conservation easement with the Southern Conservation Trust. (Photo courtesy of SCT.)

By Hannah E. Jones

The Southern Conservation Trust (SCT) — a Fayetteville-based nonprofit focused on the preservation and stewardship of land — held the first installment of its adult education programs on June 30, starting with a discussion about conserving private land.

Director of Conservation and Stewardship Jesse Woodsmith. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

The seminar was led by Director of Conservation and Stewardship Jesse Woodsmith, who broke down the process and benefits of protecting private land. Around 93 percent of Georgia land is privately owned, and its preservation is critical to protecting our local animals, plants and waterways. 

Founded in 1993, SCT has over 65,000 acres under conservation in 13 states throughout the Southeast. Their properties range from Atlanta’s 1.75-acre Lake Claire Community Land Trust to an 8,000-acre plot in South Carolina.

“Suburban and urban green space is critically important to saving green spaces,” Woodsmith said. “We think everything comes down to context and the importance of conserving in an area. Some of those smaller [plots] can be just as important as a whole mountainside.”

Conserving this land helps create a mosaic of protected land that allows our local and larger ecosystems to thrive. For example, 95 percent of endangered species rely on private land. 

Private lands are also home to many of our resources — over half of U.S. forests are privately owned and contribute 30 percent of our drinking water. If these lands are threatened by development, it can have severe impacts.

“There are benefits that forests provide whether they’re near you or far away from you,” Woodsmith said. “There are some very critical functions that healthy forests provide – water filtration, soil stabilization – but even forests very far away are contributing to our environment in a larger sense.”

To protect the land and the natural life it’s home to, landowners can place their acreage under a conservation easement with a land trust — “a legal agreement between the landowner and the land trust that permanently limits the uses of the land to protect its conservation values.” About 50 Georgia organizations have the authority to hold conservation easements.

Under this agreement, the landowner still owns the property and can live there or sell it, but the development guidelines remain in place. Ted Turner is a famous example, as the second-largest private landowner in the U.S. with much of it under conservation easement. 

A blue heron at SCT’s 120 acre Nesmith Preserve. (Photo by Marlene Koslowsky, courtesy of the Southern Conservation Trust.)
A blue heron at SCT’s 120 acre Nesmith Preserve. (Photo by Marlene Koslowsky, courtesy of the Southern Conservation Trust.)

The Piedmont Region houses 87 animal species and 16 habitats that are marked as high-priority by the 2015 Georgia State Wildlife Plan — freshwater marsh, granite outcrops, rivers — and these areas are most important to most local trusts.

Here’s how it works: 

  1. The landowner hires a surveyor to document the land 
  2. Land trust examines potential reasons for conservation 
  3. Land trust, owner and attorney discuss the terms and conditions of the conservation easement, which can be highly tailored to the owners’ plans for the plot 
  4. Appraiser calculates the value of the tax deduction 

For instance, a landowner whose property borders a river could potentially place a conservation easement on their 15-acre plot. The owner can create their own guidelines for the agreement, like development isn’t allowed within 100 feet of the river. 

Once the contract is signed, the trust agrees to serve as a permanent steward for the property. This comes with a fee, but the cost and easement are charitable donations and allow for tax deductions. 

The need to protect our lands and their natural resources is felt on a national scale. In January, the Biden Administration rolled out an initiative to conserve at least 30 percent of our lands and ocean territories by 2030. 

If you’re interested in learning more about conservation easements and the importance of preserving private land, click here.

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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